By Dr. Carolyn Roy-Bornstein
It has been six months since a 9.0 magnitude earthquake triggered a tsunami that crippled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Radiation fall-out from the disaster continues to be a significant health problem for the people of Fukushima and the dangers will in all likelihood continue for years to
come. As a pediatrician, I’ve been wondering recently, who will care for the children of Fukushima?
Children are at greater risk of the dangers of radiation for many reasons. Their minute volumes, or the amount of air they breathe in one minute, are greater than adults, causing them greater exposure to radioactive gases. They also live and breathe closer to the ground and therefore closer to nuclear fallout as it settles to earth. Radioactive Iodine is readily transmitted to human breast milk. (Cesium has been detected in the breast milk of seven women in the Fukushima area.) Cow’s milk also becomes quickly contaminated when radioactive materials settle onto grazing fields.
The Japanese government has been slow to release information to its citizens. It was over a
week after the accident before the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry issued their first official
notice to farmers to use only fodder stored indoors due to widespread contamination of rice hay.
One month after the tsunami and nuclear disaster, the Fukushima prefecture was directed to
adopt a much laxer standard for radiation exposure for children. The allowable dose of radiation for children was raised to 20 millisieverts (mSv) per year, the same dose allowable for adult nuclear plant workers. Physicians for Social Responsibility issued a statement calling the move unconscionable. (To their credit, many municipalities continued to enforce the previous stricter limits, adopting measures such as clearing contaminated topsoil from play areas.) Professor
Toshisho Kosako, special advisor to the prime minister, resigned in protest. Faced with this
significant backlash from parents and professionals, the Japanese government has since tightened its standards down to 1 mSv per year.
Another professor, Tatsuhiko Kodama, head of the Radioisotope Center at the University of
Tokyo, testified on July 27th before the Committee on Welfare and Labor in the Japanese Diet. He
estimated that the uranium leak from the Fukushima Daiichi plant amounted to the equivalent of 20 Hiroshima atomic bombs. He describes being contacted by the mayor of Minami-Soma for help with decontamination efforts. When professionals from the Radioisotope Center arrived, they were presented with only one Geiger counter. When they dug a little further, they actually found 20 personal dosimeters, donated by the US Army. But the Board of Education at City Hall could not decipher the English manual.
The lessons from Fukushima need to be learned quickly and applied here at home. Seabrook
nuclear power plant in New Hampshire is trying to re-license its facility 20 years before the current license expires.
Paul Gunter, a co-founder of the Clamshell Alliance, suspects this strategy is to avoid re-licensing
hearings at a time when more problems could be expected at the aging plant. In May 2011, the
NRC’s on-site inspector at Seabrook reported that the concrete surrounding an electric tunnel at
Seabrook Station nuclear power plant has lost almost 22 percent of its strength because it has been saturated with ground water for more than a decade. The concern is the possibility of electrical shortages in case of nuclear accident. It is just such shortages that crippled the Fukushima Daiichi plant and delayed clean-up efforts significantly.
Mie Athearn, native of Fukushima and current resident of Rockland, Maine, recently led a
march from Maine almost 200 miles to Japan’s General Consulate in Boston to draw attention to
the ongoing health problems in her people in Fukushima. The devastation she witnessed when she returned to Japan after the disaster made her “want to appeal for stronger actions to protect children from radiation hazards.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics responded to the disaster with monetary aid from
its Friends of Children disaster preparedness funds as well as support and advice. In a personal
communication with me, Jonathan Klein, the academy’s associate executive director, said that the academy has sent their counterparts at the Japan Pediatric Society our guidelines for dealing with radiation disasters including the mental health effects in children.
But efforts need to be ongoing. Radiation can accumulate in areas previously
deemed decontaminated. For example, when it rains, contaminated water cascades down slides in playgrounds, pooling at the bottom: right where children land with hands out-stretched. Professor Kodama calls for improved food, soil and water inspection, using the newest technology available to Japan. He also calls for more accountability noting that “Tepco (Tokyo Electric Power Company) and the government have never clearly reported on the total amount of radiation doses resulting from the Fukushima nuclear accident.”
Continued vigilance on all our parts is vital if lessons are to be learned and children protected.
Dr. Carolyn Roy-Bornstein is a Haverhill-based pediatrician who writes about health care. Her new memoir, CRASH! published by Globe Pequot Press will be out in October 2012.