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. Continue reading