2011 Fukushima Nuclear Disaster: Who was affected and the potential health risks
The two natural disasters (earthquake and tsunami) that triggered the Fukushima nuclear accident claimed the lives of about 20,000 people. While no immediate deaths have been reported from the high-level radiation exposure from the resulting nuclear accident, it is abundantly clear that a substantial number of people in Japan have been exposed to the nuclear radiation. Some may even continue to be exposed through direct and indirect exposure pathways.
Some densely populated areas in Japan are likely to receive low level radioactive exposure due to soil and water contamination for decades to come. Individuals living in areas where food (crops, meat, dairy products and seafood) and water has been contaminated are also likely to feel the ripples created by this unfortunate incident.
According to a 2015 Fukushima Report available from Green Cross, approximately 32 million people in Japan are affected by (background) radiation from the nuclear disaster in Fukushima . And the emerging evidence from Fukushima shows that the ‘umbrella of the negatively impacted people’ also includes those who suffered and continue to suffer from physiological stress either directly related to high-level radiation exposure or the resulting safety evacuation.
Looking at the real picture: Short-term and long-term effects
Recently, Dr. Ian Fairlie, a London-based independent consultant on radioactivity in the environment, shared his views on the health toll from the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe. We combine these findings as well as the data published in the Green Cross report to sum up the effects as:
- Approximately 20,000 people died due to the earthquake and tsunami.
- About 12,000 workers were exposed to high levels of radiation; some up to 250 mSv
- Between 2011 and 2015, about 2,000 people died from the effects of the necessary safety evacuation.
- Evacuations also resulted in post-trauma stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety disorders and suicide incidences among the affected population. Other long-term effects such as stigmatization, discrimination, and fear due to radiation exposure are not only expected but quite evident even now.
- According to a 2013 UNSCEAR report, the collective dose to the Japanese population from Fukushima is 48,000 person Sv. It is a very large dose and is expected to cause about 5,000 fatal cancers in the future.
- In addition to cancer, resulting and continuing radiation exposure are likely to cause long-term radiogenic effects – including strokes, CVS (cyclic vomiting syndrome), heart diseases, untowardly pregnancy issues, hereditary effects and much more.
- Compared to adults and children, those who were exposed as infants are expected to have a greater risk of developing “all leukemias, all 20 solid cancers, female breast cancer and thyroid cancer, as the additional risk from radiation plays out over their lifetime.”
- There are risks of receiving low-levels but chronic exposure to continued leaks escaping from the damaged and yet smouldering plant.
Are long-term health risks real?
There have been large scale studies to assess and predict the potential risks to humans, but understanding the ill-effects on a full-scale can be very challenging. It is because the health effects of radiation are likely to manifest slowly and not even show up for decades. In such a scenario, it will not be easy to determine whether the new, emerging health conditions in the population at the later stage are caused by exposure to radioactive contamination. Considering the levels of radioactivity contamination still-leaking into the ocean, figuring out the impact becomes even more challenging.
But it surely doesn’t mean that we downplay the impact of low-level but chronic radiation exposure. A section of scientists in the field believe that even small doses of radiations carry health risks that we should be concerned about.
Stochastic nature of low-revel radiations
Authorities and policy makers around the globe keep assuring the public that risks from the radiation fall-out are overly exaggerated – claiming that these radiations are well below the detectable and harmful level. In this context, Ian Fairlie made a very interesting point when he writes about the stochastic nature of low-level radiation effects. He says:
“Stochastic means an all-or-nothing response: you either get cancer etc or you don’t. As you decrease the dose, the effects become less likely (and) your chance of (developing) cancer declines all the way down to zero dose. The corollary is that tiny doses, even well below background, still carry a small chance of cancer: there is never a safe dose, except zero dose.” 
There is no dearth of proof as to what damage this radiation can bring on to us in the future. We only have to look as far as epidemiological studies from the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Even more ironical is that much more staggering and solid evidence is coming from the largest on-going epidemiology study, the Life Span Study conducted on the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. All the evidence clearly points out that same types of late radiogenic effects – including increased risk of Thyroid cancer, other types of solid cancer, hereditary diseases, fertility issues, weakened immunity etc. – are likely to rear their ugly heads in the Fukushima case too.
Here’s a quick look at ill-effects from Fukushima nuclear accident:
- Thyroid damage and Thyroid Cancers
- Solid Cancers
- Heart Diseases
- Physiological Trauma, Stress & Depression
- Fertility and Pregnancy Issues
- Birth Defects
- Weakened Immunity
- Risks of hereditary diseases
Our next post talks about these Health Effects from Fukushima Disaster in details.
- Jonathan M. Samet, Dayana Chanson. 2015. Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant Disaster: How many people were affected? Green Cross.
- Ian Fairlie. 2015. Fukushima: Thousands Have Already Died, Thousands More Will Die. Counter Punch.