By Judy Foreman
Nearly two years ago, a giant earthquake off the coast of Japan sent a 13-meter high tsunami crashing into the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, causing meltdowns in three of the six reactors and ultimately, triggering an explosion. Thousands were killed by the tsunami and earthquake.
No one has died from radiation and in fact no radiation health effects have yet been observed among the public or workers, according to a December, 2012 statement from a United Nations expert committee.
But even as the actual health effects from radiation – at least so far – are turning out to be much less dramatic than many people feared, a host of other, less-feared but very real, outcomes are causing lasting trouble. These include mental health problems such as alcoholism, depression, anxiety and, in the case of children whose parents and teachers are too afraid to let them play outdoors, a rise in obesity.
It is a striking illustration of what often happens in public health. What we think we should be most afraid of is often, in reality, less dangerous than we think, while other things that we are blasé about, carry higher risks. We fully believe, for instance, that we are being killed by toxic stuff in our air, water and food and ignore the huge health risks from sedentary lifestyles.
A fascinating article last month in the journal Nature illustrates the point beautifully.
The Fukushima Health Management Survey, described in detail in the Nature article, found that the doses of radiation experienced by people evacuated from the nuclear zone were surprisingly low. For nearly all the evacuees, the exposure level was only about 25 millisieverts (mSv). That is considerably less than the 100-mSv level, at which risks from radiation, including cancer, are believed to increase. (A Sievert is a unit of ionizing radiation.)
And this is not the only research team to have found lower levels of radioactive pollution than feared. A World Health Organization project studied exposure to radiation in the six months after Fukushima.
The report concluded that “the estimated effective doses outside Japan from the Fukushima Daiichi NPP accident are below (and often far below) dose levels regarded as being very small by the international radiological protection community. Low effective doses are also estimated in much of Japan.”
Even right around Fukushima the report said, “the effective doses are estimated to be below 10 mSv, which can be considered within the order of magnitude of the natural radiation background, except in two locations.”
Indeed, that 10 mSv level is not dramatically more than the 6.5 mSv the average American gets every year from natural background radiation and medical procedures, according to another assessment of Fukushima after effects in the March, 7, 2012 Scientific American. That article, too, notes that heart disease and depression are likely to claim more lives post-Fukushima than radiation.
Indeed, the emotional fallout from Fukushima is serious. The big Japanese survey asked the more than 200,000 evacuees about their stress and anxiety and found that they showed about five times the normal rates of extreme stress, with children showing about double the normal levels.
Ronald Kessler, a professor of Health Care Policy at Harvard Medical School, said in an email that he was not surprised by this. “The possibility of radiation exposure creates long-term uncertainty that can complicate emotional recovery…the anxiety associated with this uncertainty, if not managed, could itself create long-term health problems even in the absence of subsequent physical health problems caused by radiation exposure.”
Obesity, too, is another serious consequence of radiophobia, or radiation fears, as the British newspaper, The Guardian, recently reported. Children in the Fukushima area are now the most obese in Japan, according to an education ministry report, because post-Fukushima radiation fears have meant restrictions on outdoor exercise.
All very sobering. Obviously, no one would advocate skimping on safety procedures around nuclear plants. In fact, the rapid evacuation of people out of the immediate Fukushima power plant area probably contributed substantially to the low radiation levels among the general public.
But if Fukushima is teaching us that our fears of radiation may be exaggerated, it also provides another lesson: That we should take seriously the more mundane, but potentially more lethal, aftereffects of disasters such as anxiety, depression, alcoholism and physical inactivity.
Judy Foreman, a health reporter in Boston, just completed a book about chronic pain: “A Nation in Pain: Healing Our Biggest Health Problem.”