Fukushima Residents Plagued by Health Fears of Nuclear
Threat in their Midst
Justin McCurry (in Fukushima)
Friday 9 March 2012
A year after the power plant's triple meltdown,
conflicting official information leaves families
confused and fearful for their future
The noise levels soar inside Fukushima city's youth
centre gymnasium as dozens of nursery school children
are let loose on bouncy castles and pits filled with
The handful of teachers and volunteers on duty are in
forgiving mood: for the past year, the Fukushima nuclear
accident has robbed these children of the simple freedom
to run around.
Instead, anxious parents and teachers have confined them
to their homes and classrooms, while scientists debate
the possible effects of prolonged exposure to low-level
radiation on their health.
"Many parents won't let their children play outside,
even in places where the radiation isn't that high,"
said Koji Nomi of the Fukushima chapter of the Japanese
Red Cross, which organised the event. "Unless they have
the opportunity to run around, their physical strength
is at risk of deteriorating.
"That in turn puts them at risk of succumbing to stress.
Some are allowed to play outside for short periods every
day, but that's not enough."
Hundreds of thousands of children in the area have been
living with similar restrictions since the Fukushima
Daiichi nuclear power plant's triple meltdown last
March, sending radioactive particles over a wide area.
The immediate threat of a catastrophic release has
passed, but residents of several towns, including those
outside the 12-mile (20km) exclusion zone, say they live
in fear of the invisible threat in their midst. Kumiko
Abe and her family evacuated from Iitate, 39km from the
power plant, weeks after the accident after a study by
Tetsuji Imanaka, an associate professor of nuclear
engineering at the Kyoto University Research Reactor
Institute, found unusually high pockets of radiation in
They now live in private accommodation in Fukushima
city, but Abe says she continues to take precautions to
protect her nine-year-old daughter, Momoe.
"We have stopped eating rice grown by my husband's
parents, and I never buy locally grown vegetables," Abe,
46, said. "I started buying imported meat, and we drink
only bottled water. I try not to hang out laundry on
windy days ... I'd like to be able to air our futons,
but I can't."
Her concerns centre on her daughter, who has a tiny lump
on her thyroid gland. Doctors have assured her it is
benign. "Even though they say there's nothing to worry
about I'd like her to have more frequent tests," Abe
Her anxiety is compounded by conflicting messages from
experts about the risk of exposure to low-level
Shunichi Yamashita, a professor at Fukushima Medical
University who acts as an adviser on radiation risk
management to the local government, angered parents when
he said exposure to 100 millisieverts a year - the level
recommended for nuclear plant workers in an emergency -
was safe, even for children. He has since claimed that
his comments were taken out of context.
A cumulative dosage of 100 millisieverts a year over a
person's lifetime increases the risk of dying from
cancer by 0.5%, according to the International
Commission of Radiological Protection.
No study has linked cancer development to exposure at
below that level, but there is agreement that the
Fukushima case is unprecedented.
Much of the unease stems from the wildly varying levels
of radiation recorded in the same areas: in parts of
Fukushima outside the evacuation zone, readings vary
from negligible to as high as 50 millisieverts a year.
Normally, the Japanese are exposed to about 1
millisievert of background radiation a year.
The emergence of thyroid cancers in children living near
Chernobyl is on many parents' minds, despite UN data
showing that exposure to radioactive iodine, an
established cause of the condition, was much lower in
Campaigners said this week that Japan's government had
been too slow to providing health checks and information
"A year on, we are really not seeing basic health
services being offered in an accessible way and we are
not seeing accurate, consistent, non-contradictory
information being disclosed to people on a regular
basis," Jane Cohen, a researcher for Human Rights Watch,
"People have to at least be equipped with accurate
information so that they are evaluating their situation
based on real facts."
The government has tried to ease health concerns with
the launch of a testing programme in Fukushima
prefecture that will include 360,000 children aged up to
18. They will undergo thyroid checks every two years
until they are 20, and every five years thereafter. In
all, 2 million residents will be screened over the next
30 years, but so far only a fraction of those eligible
have been tested. Serious threats
"Our children have all been wearing glass badges [to
measure radiation absorption], but only a few of them
have been screened," said Mitsue Shiga, a teacher at a
kindergarten in Fukushima city's Watari suburb. "We
don't allow the children to play outside at all."
Medical professionals in the area say they lack the
specialist equipment to quickly test and reassure
residents. "We have just one whole body radiation
counter, but we need three," said Tomoyoshi Oikawa,
assistant director of Minamisoma municipal general
Anti-nuclear campaigners accused the authorities of
putting children's health at risk by ignoring calls to
help women and young people leave at-risk areas outside
the evacuation zone. "We are finding that radioactive
contamination is concentrating in many places, creating
hot spots that pose serious threats to health and
safety," said Jan van de Putte, Greenpeace's radiation
"These spots are worryingly located in densely populated
areas, but people do not have support or even the right
to relocate, and decontamination work is patchy and
inadequate at best."
According to preliminary estimates, the doses of
radiation received by people living near the nuclear
facility were probably too small to have much of an
effect on health, even among those who were in the
vicinity during the meltdowns.
But the relatively small doses measured so far could
pose problems for long-term attempts to properly gauge
the Fukushima effect.
"There is no opportunity for conducting epidemiological
studies that have any chance of success," John Boice,
the incoming president of the US national council on
radiation protection and measurements, said recently.
"The doses are just too low. If you were to do a
proposal, it would not pass scientific review."
For a more comprehensive assessment of the accident's
impact on health, Fukushima residents will have to wait
for the UN scientific committee on the effects of atomic
radiation to publish its findings in May 2013.
Iitate residents say the conflicting information has
left them confused and fearful about the future. "Young
children were living in the village for months after the
meltdown," said Toru Anzai, a rice farmer who now lives
in temporary housing on the outskirts of Fukushima city
said: "We're being treated like lab rats. The
authorities should have told us as soon as they knew the
reactors had melted down and helped us leave
immediately. That's why people here are so angry."
Anecdotal evidence suggests that fear of radiation,
rather than contamination, is triggering stress-related
problems among evacuees.
A handful of children from Iitate suffered nosebleeds,
despite having no history of the condition, and blotches
on their skin, according to Anzai, who says he has had
stomach pains, pins and needles and hair loss since last
Tadateru Konoe, president of the Japanese Red Cross,
said parents from Fukushima were living in an
Abe was dismissive of promises by Iitate's mayor that
the village would be decontaminated and that some
residents would be able to move back in the next few
years: "I have a young child so I don't think I'll ever
go back. There will always be some contamination left,
especially in the mountains. It's no place to bring up a
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