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« UN human rights report issues critique on Japan's handling of Fukushima impacts, especially radiation exposure | Main | Landfill fire near radioactive waste dump raises alarm in St. Louis »
Thursday
Jun062013

UN radiation panel: children more vulnerable to radiation, even so, no detectable health effects from Fukushima

“Long-term monitoring, proper medical treatment, key to Fukushima citizens’ health outcomes. Children at increased risk”. This should have been the title of the most recent press release from the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR). However, UNSCEAR continues to downplay health effects from the ongoing Fukushima nuclear catastrophe.

The UNSCEAR press release presages their release of two reports expected in October 2013. It is hard to evaluate the scientific basis for many UNSCEAR claims without access to the full reports, but UNSCEAR's collective thought process is quite clear, both in the press release and the accompanying video of a May 31 press conference that followed a meeting of the committee. Beyond Nuclear contends the following issues are still outstanding and must be independently addressed to protect public and particularly child, health. UNSCEAR should no longer be allowed to downplay radiation impacts.

1.     Fear of radiation is justified based on radiation dangers and past official actions to hide this danger

UNSCEAR needs to recognize that fear of radiation exposure is justifiable because exposure to radiation posses a true (not exaggerated), unseen danger, that is often downplayed or ignored by officials. This official unwillingness to face these dangers often leaves people with no control over their own health outcomes. The UN Human Rights report (advanced unedited version): Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, Anand Grover, Mission to Japan (15 - 26 November 2012), recognizes that this fear of radiation has merit and should be addressed on this merit: "The Special Rapporteur personally observed the anxiety and stress among evacuees, residents and their families, which were related to the effect of radiation leakage on health, especially of children, cost of evacuation, loss of livelihoods as well as uncertain future and delays in receiving compensation that hindered rebuilding of their lives."

While uprooting communities and livelihoods is certainly devastating, the reason the people can't return to their former lives two years after the Fukushima catastrophe isn't because of the earthquake and tsunami devastation, it is because no dose of radiation is safe and radiation exposure has increased due to the catastrophe in the areas where these people used to live and work.

2.     Radiation is the real danger, not evacuation and relocation

The solution to the mental anguish caused by a nuclear accident isn't moving people back into contaminated areas, or keeping them from leaving in the first place -- something that UNSCEAR hints at when they say doses at Fukushima were reduced by a factor of 10 because of either evacuating or sheltering in place. However, the not-so subtle implication is that, of these two options, evacuation and more importantly, permanent relocation, can be the real damage, not radiation:  "The experience from the 1986 Chernobyl accident has shown us that apart from any direct impact on physical health, the social and societal effects, and their associated health consequences in  the affected population  will need special attention in the coming years," said Carl-Magnus Larsson, Chair, UNSCEAR. "Families are suffering, and people have been uprooted and are concerned about their livelihoods and futures, the health of their children…it is these issues that will be the long-lasting fallout of the accident." UNSCEAR, intentionally or not, is setting up a scenario where, at the very least, permanent relocation and maybe even evacuation, will not be recommended in future nuclear catastrophes. People who become victims of nuclear energy will not be able to relocate.

3.     Scientific bodies like UNSCEAR should know better than to attempt to “predict away” health effects of radiation exposure

UNSCEAR continues to predict that any health effects that occur will be difficult to attribute to radiation exposure: "Radiation exposure following the nuclear accident at Fukushima-Daiichi did not cause any immediate health effects. It is unlikely to be able to attribute any health effects in the future among the general public and the vast majority of workers..." Note they don't say there will not be any health effects, just that we won't be able to detect them. So while they say long term monitoring is key, what would they expect to find if they have already assumed they won't see anything? Why bother to look? The UN Human Rights report warns that we don't yet know the impact of low-dose radiation from Fukushima. (see quote in paragraph below)

Should we observe increases in disease in Japan, UNSCEAR most likely will refuse to acknowledge that these disease increases are attributable to radiation not because of science, but because their prognostications told them it wasn't possible. In essence, what happened to cover up Chernobyl health impacts is occurring right now in Japan.

4.     People want proper medical treatment, not data-mining

UNSCEAR has not accounted for those in Japan who avoid official databases and therefore may not be in the official "count". These people don't want to become a statistic without also receiving proper medical care, something they believe they won't get from government. The UNSCEAR statement hints at medical follow-up, but doesn't really define what that means: "At the same time, it is important to maintain a long-term medical follow-up for the exposed population, and in relation to certain diseases to provide a clear picture of their health status development." But people in Japan have a right to be skeptical regarding proper medical follow-up since their historical experience after the atomic bombings proved to them their only worth to researchers was as a radiation experiment.  The UN report on Human Rights post Fukushima makes a stronger statement regarding access to medical care and the impacts of low-dose radiation: "As the exact health effects of long-term exposure to low-dose ionizing radiation cannot be accurately predicted, the implementing measures should also expressly provide free, life-long health screening and medical treatment relating to radiation exposure for all affected persons. The 20-year time limit contained in the Civil Code should not apply to financial assistance for medical care related to the nuclear accident."

5.     Studies of past radiation exposures are not always applicable to Fukushima exposures

UNSCEAR refuses to recognize the differences in exposure between the populations exposed from Fukushima and those exposed to medical exams and treatments, and atomic bomb fall-out. They still claim that for children: "More research is needed to fully understand the risks and effects following childhood exposure to radiation. This is necessary (and possible) because there are many individuals who were exposed as children (such as the survivors of the atomic bombings) who are still alive. Their experiences must not be lost," said Fred Mettler, Chair, UNSCEAR Report on Effects of Radiation Exposure on Children." This bomb exposure is not comparable to either the exposures at Chernobyl or Fukushima, which in turn, may not be wholly applicable to each other. The UN Human Rights report recognizes this (paragraph 9), as do a number of researchers.

6.     Children falling victim to radiation AND predictions of no noticeable health impacts

UNSCEAR recognizes that children are often more vulnerable to damage from radiation in any exposure scenario. In the case of Fukushima, UNSCEAR has recognized that long-term monitoring is key. Publishing a report enumerating the vulnerabilities of children is very important and the report by UNSCEAR will be the first attempt to collect this information in one place. But the report's release will be marred by UNSCEAR's  presupposed conclusion that " It is unlikely to be able to attribute any health effects in the future among the general public...", and their historic unwillingness to stray from this belief despite observations to the contrary. As the health outcomes of children in Japan are followed, it will be interesting to see how nuclear proponents attempt to downplay any increases in childhood diseases linked to radiation exposure.

7.     Radiation exposure assumptions are based on flawed and incomplete data

thanks to simplyinfo.org for mapUNSCEAR is not accounting for the spread of radioactive contamination through burning of rubble OR other ill-fated attempts at "cleanup". Rubble which could be radioactive, has been transported across Japan and is being burned, spreading radioactive exposure. Attempts to clean the contaminated areas has lead to contamination of different areas and keeping track has been difficult.

UNSCEAR appears to be averaging the doses from Fukushima across the entire population of Japan, even though not everyone in Japan will be getting the same amount of exposure.  "The additional exposures received by most Japanese people in the first year and subsequent years due to the radioactive releases from the accident are less than the doses received from natural background radiation (which is about 2.1 mSv per year). This is particularly the case for Japanese people living away from Fukushima, where annual doses of around 0.2 mSv from the accident are estimated, arising primarily through ingestion of radionuclides in food."

However, before Fukushima, the background radiation in Japan was much lower than 2.1 mSv per year for most areas (see map, thanks to simplyinfo.org) This means that the 1mSv per year allowed through ingestion alone, by the Japan government, and which UNSCEAR supports, will add significantly to any natural radiation dose. In fact, the UN Human Rights report recommends that Japan should "Formulate a national plan on evacuation zones and dose limits of radiation by using current scientific evidence, based on human rights rather than on a risk-benefit analysis..."

Perhaps the most maddening circumstance is that UNSCEAR makes recommendations, but takes absolutely no responsibility for how these recommendations are used. This lack of accountability necessitates public vigilance and interaction with any recommendations they make. Beyond Nuclear will review the final reports when they are released in October. Stay tuned.