Fukushima Accident “Unlikely to Cause an Increase in Cancers”

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    In an LA Times Op-Ed, Robert Peter Gale (Imperial College London) and F. Owen Hoffman (SENES Oak Ridge) argue that the public has a skewed perception of radiation risks from Fukushima:

    Despite worries, radiation exposure from the Japanese nuclear plant damaged by the tsunami is unlikely to cause an increase in cancers.

    [...]

    The kind of radiation was similar to Chernobyl, but about four to 10 times less was released. And there are other important differences. Most of the radiation released (about 80%) was blown offshore by winds, where it was diluted by air and sea. Consequently, exposures received by Fukushima workers and the public are quite low, including among the 20,000 or more workers decommissioning the facility and the approximately 100,000 evacuees. This doesn’t mean there will be no future radiation-caused cancers, as some claim. But because there may be so few cancers, it is unlikely any epidemiological investigations will detect an increase in Japan or elsewhere that can be directly attributed to Fukushima.

    What do the Fukushima exposures really mean? A rough estimate is that for a 50-year-old male working at the Fukushima nuclear facility, his lifetime risk of cancer might increase from 42% to 42.2%. The magnitude of this increased risk is comparable to the added risk of living in Denver (where background radiation is higher because of the altitude and radionuclides in the Rocky Mountains) versus New York City for 10 to 15 years, or smoking one pack of cigarettes a day for one to two years. The Japanese public will, of course, get far less radiation.

    They call on governments to better explain health risks to the public. Dosage should be explained in terms of expected increases in the probability of developing cancer, and should be presented alongside information on the expected chances of developing cancer in a lifetime, regardless of cause.

    Forbes.com contributor Stephen Harner has praised the Op-Ed, and added some criticism of how Japanese bureaucrats and the media are explaining health risks of “contaminated” food:

    the Japanese public–and particularly its food producers in Fukushima prefecture and elsewhere–are being ill-served by pusillanimous bureaucrats and politicians who are terrified of ever being accused of failing to warn of radiation contamination or to protect the public from even the most remote and unsubstantiated alleged health risks. The example is the new 100 becquerel level of cesium pollution (against the previous 500 becquerel temporary standard) per kilogram of rice. I should have mentioned that the U.S. standard for “intervention” is 1200 becquerels. But to know Japan is to know that its bureaucracy seems to think nothing of setting standards far stricter than anywhere else in the world without regard to the scientific evidence on the grounds that there still might “possibly” be a risk. It is a variation on the zero-defect, perfectionist mentality: so long as it cannot be proven not to cause harm, it is presumed to do so.

    Every day the media in Japan are filled with reports of various levels of radiation and other pollutants, usually without reference to whether these levels are really threatening to health, usually because, as noted, the negative has not been proven cannot be guaranteed. What are almost as bad are the explanations, which generally are that at the “elevated” levels some (unspecified) health risk “cannot be ruled out” if someone consumes (usually voluminous and unusual quantities) of the food daily for a year or more (and did not wash or cook it beforehand, which everyone does), and if the food was not raised in a hothouse (which in winter everything is).

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