Fukushima and people health

2011 Fukushima Nuclear Disaster: Heavy health penalties

The 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster was categorized as level 7 on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES), the same level assigned to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Level 7 is considered as the highest level for nuclear accidents, signifying a colossal release of radioactive material into the environment with widespread effects.

We have some leading health and government agencies making claims that the risks from the radiation fall-out are exaggerated, and that the radiation levels were far below the harmful levels. But it is impossible to ignore the monumental data collected from the studies on survivors of Chernobyl, Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear disasters. All of this data indicates that we can expect similar late radiogenic impact, such as increased risk of life-time cancer, genetic disorders, fertility issues, weak immunity and more. It is no wonder that this situation has triggered a real concern among the medical community regarding the far-reaching, unimaginable repercussions of ongoing radiation exposure on human health, as well as on the associated biological ecosystem.

According to a 2011 study “Nuclear radiations may affect the human body as a whole or may cause localized damage to a certain area of the body………All the endocrine glands are susceptible to damage by radiation exposure; however, pituitary, thyroid and gonads are most likely to be affected. For children (especially at a young age) and pregnant women, the potential health risks are higher because of the sensitivity of the reproducing human cells in their bodies. In addition to the endocrine effects, the rates of birth defects and carcinomas may also be increased in the population exposed to excessive radiation.” [1]

  1. Thyroid cancer

In any nuclear explosion, a dangerous amount of radioactive Iodine 131 is released into the atmosphere. Our body needs iodine to produce thyroid hormones that are responsible for regulating many important metabolic processes, especially those involved in growth, development and energy expenditure. These essential hormones are also required for the normal functioning of the heart, digestive system, central and peripheral nervous systems and maintaining muscle mass, bone strength and body temperature. During childhood, thyroid hormones are needed for the cognitive and physical development and play a particularly critical role in brain maturation during fetal development.

But what happens when we are exposed to Iodine 131, radioactive isotope of iodine? If we are at all deficient in iodine, we will absorb any Iodine 131 we come in contact with. In addition to the intestinal absorption, iodine can also very easily pass through the skin and the cells lining the alveoli of the lungs. Once inside, Iodine 131 quickly accumulates in the thyroid gland and releases radioactive energy in the form of beta particles and gamma radiations – damaging thyroid and parathyroid glands.

A 2012 study shows that high amount of radioactive iodine released in nuclear disasters, such as Chernobyl, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Fukushima, have caused a dramatic increase in thyroid cancers, especially in children [2].

  1. Thyroid cancer in children

Typically, under normal circumstances, the rate of thyroid cancer is very low among children under 18 years of age. After the nuclear meltdown, a very high rate of thyroid gland abnormalities has been found in children in Fukushima prefecture ranging from nodules, cysts and malignant tumours. By the spring of 2015, 126 official cases of thyroid cancer were reported among 370,000 children in Fukushima. According to a report published in September 2015 issue of Asia Pacific Journal: Japan Focus [3], “This rate amounts to 340/1,000,000 over 4 years, i.e., 85/1,000,000/year. This is abnormally high, approximately 60 times the normal rate, even much higher than that reported in Chernobyl.”

The 2013 WHO report ‘Health Risk Assessment from the nuclear accident after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami based on preliminary dose estimation’ estimated that for people living in the most affected areas there is an increased risk of  thyroid cancer, “up to 70% in females exposed as infants (the normally expected risk of thyroid cancer in females over lifetime is 0.75% and the additional lifetime risk assessed for females exposed as infants in the most affected location is 0.50%).”  [4]

What is bewildering is that leading health authorities and the committee supervising the investigation have denied that there is any causal relationship between thyroid cancer and the radiation from the Fukushima accident. They argued against causality by citing many reasons mostly revolving around inaccurate facts, one being that it is too early for Fukushima children to show any signs of thyroid cancer as it might take 4-5 years to show up. However, this point has been invalidated by the article published in the Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus [5]. In addition, a recent report suggests that the latent period for thyroid cancer can be as short as one year in children [6].

The authorities also argued that the amount of radioactive material released was far lower than that of Chernobyl and as such the health outcomes cannot be compared to the effects found in Chernobyl incident. This again turns out to be a very weak argument as many studies have shown that radioactive material released in the Fukushima disaster were almost as high if not higher than Chernobyl. 

  1. Solid cancer

Highly unstable radionuclides, especially Cesium -137 and 134, keep releasing beta particles and gamma radiation as they continue to decay in their attempt to stabilized. These high energy radiations can penetrate tissues and destroy cells. Long-term exposure to nuclear radiations can virtually destroy fragile biological structures like proteins, lipids including DNA strands – leading to mutations and enhancing the risk of developing cancer. Even more disturbing is the fact that children are more susceptible to the impact of these radiations.

According to a WHO risk assessment report, estimated lifetime risks for the development of specific cancers increased in the population from the most contaminated areas [7]. This calls for long- term sustained monitoring and health screening for this population.

  • Leukaemia: Boys exposed as infants had 7% higher risk of developing Leukaemia
  • Breast cancer: Girls exposed as infants had around 6% higher risk of developing breast cancer.
  • All solid cancers: Girls exposed as infants had around 4% higher risk of developing solid cancer
  • Thyroid cancer: Girls exposed as infants had around 70% higher risk of developing thyroid cancer.

In 2013, IPPNW, a medical organization critical of nuclear power and weapons, reported that due to radiation exposure from the Fukushima nuclear disaster, somewhere between 20,000 and 80,000 cases of cancer were to be expected. In addition, around 18,000 to 37,000 cancer incidences are expected due to the consumption of contaminated food.

According to the startling conclusion of the IPPNW report, “It has been demonstrated that under the assumptions and data of the WHO report, some 22,000 cases of cancer should be expected in the Japanese population as a result of external radiation and the consumption of contaminated food. However, when the factor to determine the lifetime dose is based on the experience of Chernobyl and the most recent scientific research, the number of expected cancer cases calculated with the WHO data rises to around 66,000.” [8]

  1. Heart diseases

It was reported that children in the Fukushima contamination area were suffering heart attacks. This may come as a surprise, but while exposure to nuclear radiations are commonly believed to cause cancer and leukemia, it has some disastrous non-cancer outcomes too. Cs-137 and Cs-134 are known to affect the integrity of myocardial muscles – resulting in serious cardiac disorders such as heart attacks, irregular heart beat and angina. 

According to a 2011 report by Chris Busby, chronic exposure to Cesium-137 damages the developing hearts of children. And he strongly emphasizes that there is no room for speculation here as the evidence is already available, adding “Prof Yuri Bandashevsky carried out a great deal of research on the effects of the contamination of children in the territories of Belarus contaminated by the Chernobyl accident. He established that children with mean body burdens of upwards of 40Bq/kg Cs -137 suffered life-threatening cardiac problems including arrhythmias, cardiac insufficiency (angina) and heart attacks (infarctions) which could result in death.” [9]

The report further explains that nuclide Cs 137 concentrates in muscles. When a child is chronically contaminated with this radiation, the radiation destroys heart muscle cells – making this vital organ lose the capability to function properly. Muscle cells of the heart cannot regenerate themselves rapidly, and take time to renew and repair. With the impaired ability to function, the outcome in children mirrors the situation in old people and that is why children of Fukushima are developing cardiac problems at this early age.

  1. Psychological Trauma

While health impact from radiation exposure is indeed enormous, the stress induced psychological consequences due to evacuation, relocation to unfamiliar settings and continuous worry about well-being are equally serious. Studies indicate that radiation survivors are extremely prone to develop Post -Trauma Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety disorders due to their frightening experiences and the ambiguity that envelops their health. Health experts believe that the psychological impact in the wake of nuclear disasters can be even more detrimental to public health than the risk emanating from radiation exposure.   

A 2014 study [10] indicates that “Preliminary data from Fukushima indeed suggests that workers and mothers of young children are at risk of depression, anxiety, psychosomatic, and post-traumatic symptoms both as a direct result of their fears about radiation exposure and an indirect result of societal stigma.”

Becky Martin, researcher at Southampton University and specialising in radiation protection writes in a report “imagine that you’ve been informed that your land, your water, and the air that you have breathed may have been polluted by a deadly and invisible contaminant. Something with the capacity to take away your fertility, or affect your unborn children. Even the most resilient of us would be concerned…” [11]

  1. Fertility and pregnancy issues

Radiation exposure is linked to the rise in infertility, stillbirths, miscarriages and birth defects. Rapidly dividing cells of a foetus are especially prone to radiation damage. A study indicates that the rate of infant mortality significantly increased after the Fukushima nuclear meltdown. Dr Alfred Körblein from Nuremburg in Germany explains that the reason for the peak in infant mortality in 2012 may be due to the consumption of contaminated food during the autumn of 2011 [12].

A 2013 study published in Open Journal of Pediatrics suggested that exposure to radioactive iodine fallout results in hypothyroidism among new-borns [13]. It says “Another potential environmental risk factor is prenatal exposure to radioactive iodine isotopes, which seek out the susceptible foetal thyroid gland. For decades, radioactive iodine has been recognized to cause adverse effects (including hypothyroidism) to the thyroid gland. The foetal thyroid, the first glandular structure to appear in the human embryo, begins to concentrate iodine and produce thyroid hormones by the 70th day of gestation.” 

Another interesting study [14] suggests that after exposure to nuclear radiations, there may be more chances of women giving birth to boys. The data points to an unbalanced loss of female pregnancies, an indicator of an underlying health problem.

  1. Weakened immunity

One of the most serious side effect of low dose, chronic radiations is impaired immunity. Nuclear radiations cause lethal damage to bone marrow stem cells, lymphocytes and natural killer cells – white blood cells responsible for innate and adaptive immunity. These immune cells work collaboratively to defend the body against any microbial attack. Damage to these cells make people generally more vulnerable to opportunistic diseases including cancer and infections.

Low dose but chronic radiations destroy cell membranes by generating a trail of free radicals, that has an impact on many body systems and the immune system is no exception. Scientists believe that low dose radiations are much more dangerous than high, short doses and explain it as a bystander effect phenomenon. Irradiated cells can influence the adjacent healthy cells by emitting signals and generating the same responses in the non-irradiated cells in the form of gene expression, cell proliferation, apoptosis and cells death. A 2014 study says, “Most well-known important factors affecting radiation-induced bystander effects include free radicals, immune system factors, expression changes of some genes involved in inflammation pathway and epigenetic factors.” [15]

In addition to this, low level radiations are known to encourage mutations of bacteria and virus and may be responsible for the emergence of diseases such as Reye’s Syndrome, Legionnaires’ Disease and Lyme Disease [16]. On one hand you have a weaker immune system and on top of that there is an increased incidence of new diseases as a result of mutated bacteria and viruses – this can indeed be a complicated situation.

  1. Neurological disorders

A 2015 research published in PloS One reported a significant spike in neurological disorders after the Fukushima nuclear disaster [17]. These disorders included internal ear diseases, vertigo, acute low-tone sensorineural hearing loss, Meniere’s disease and dizziness. The study also reported that the cases of heart disease and brain infarction also increased in the devastated area while conditions like diabetes, osteoporosis, and psychiatric illnesses were feared to have gone downhill.

Only the tip of the iceberg?

The existing concerns could only be the harbinger of more serious developments in time. It is because the possible effects from the chronic, long-term radiations are often slow in manifesting themselves as been observed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors. The same pattern has been observed in the data projected from the Chernobyl incident.

What is making matters worse is that even years after the Fukushima accident, radioactive material continues to leak into the ocean. The meltdown site, even today, is a continued source of radionuclides with containment vessels emitting radioactivity daily. And it is yet another disturbing story that Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) is still fraught with contaminated water accumulating at the Fukushima plant.

While the conflicting announcements from health authorities boils it all down to the matter of faith, we encourage people to do their own research. If you are worried about radiation exposure, there is a lot you can do to mitigate the risks by making healthy choices and staying positive. There are certain minerals, vitamins and anti-oxidants that can protect against radiation damage.     

Stay tuned for our next article on “Vitamin C as a protection against radiation exposure.”

References:

  1. Asfandyar Khan Niazi and Shaharyar Khan Niazi Endocrine effects of Fukushima: Radiation-induced endocrinopathy. Indian J Endocrinol Metab. 2011
  2. Dilas LT, Bajkin I, Icin T, Paro JN, Zavisi BK. Iodine and thyroid gland with or without nuclear catastrophe. Med Pregl. 2012 Nov-Dec;65(11-12):489-95.
  3. Eiichiro Ochiai The Human Consequences of the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant Accidents The Asia Pacific General: Japan Focus. Volume 13. Issue 38. 2015
  4. World Health Organization. Press Release Global report on Fukushima nuclear accident details health risks. 2013
  5. Piers Williamson. Demystifying the Official Discourse on Childhood Thyroid Cancer in Fukushima. The Asia Pacific General: Japan Focus. Volume 12. Issue 49. 2014
  6. John Howard. Minimum Latency & Types or Categories of Cancer. CDC. 2013. 
  7. World Health Organization. Health risk assessment from the nuclear accident after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. 2013.
  8. Henrik Paulitz, Winfrid Eisenberg, and Reinhold Thiel. WHO data predicts between 22,000 and 66,000 incidences of cancer in Japan. 2013. 
  9. Chris Busby. Radiation exposure and heart attacks in children of Fukushima. 2011
  10. Becky Martin. Nuclear fallout: the mental health consequences of radiation. The Guardian. 2015
  11. Bromet EJ. Emotional consequences of nuclear power plant disasters. Health Phys. 2014
  12. Alfred Körblein. Infant mortality after Fukushima. Strahlentelex. 2014 
  13. Joseph J. Mangano, Janette D. Sherman. Elevated airborne beta levels in Pacific/West Coast US States and trends in hypothyroidism among newborns after the Fukushima nuclear meltdown. Open Journal of Pediatrics, 2013, 3, 1-9 OJPed.
  14. Emily Sohn. How Nuclear Radiation Affects Future Generations. Discovery. 2011
  15. Najafi eat al. The Mechanisms of Radiation-Induced Bystander Effect. J Biomed Phys Eng. 2014
  16. CHAPTER ONE:  HAZARDS OF LOW LEVEL RADIOACTIVITY. NuclearReader.info
  17. Hasegawa et al. Change in and Long-Term Investigation of Neuro-Otologic Disorders in Disaster-Stricken Fukushima Prefecture: Retrospective Cohort Study before and after the Great East Japan Earthquake. PLoS One. 2015