Radiation Exposure and Risk

Ionizing radiation damages living things and contaminates the environment, sometimes permanently. Studies have shown increases in cancer around nuclear facilities and uranium mines. Radiation mutates genes which can cause genetic damage across generations.



Navajo women, babies, have uranium in their bodies

Image courtesy of Radiation Monitoring Project Early findings from a government-funded study reveal that almost a quarter of 781 Navajo (Diné) women examined have high levels of uranium in their bodies. Newborns continued to have these high levels in their bodies as well, for at least the first year of their life. This discovery by the University of New Mexico researchers is occurring decades after uranium mining for cold war atomic bombs has ended, meaning that living in a contaminated environment is to blame.

Uranium and its decay products travel throughout the body and have been associated with a whole host of diseases including cancer, and peri-and post-natal impacts. Uranium is used not just for atomic bombs, but atomic reactors as well.

The study results were revealed at a hearing in Albuquerque and according to U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland -- an enrolled member of Laguna Pueblo -- they force " to own up to the known detriments associated with a nuclear-forward society." Women and children are particularly susceptible to damage from exposure to radiation and they will pay the highest health price for our continued use of nuclear weapons and power. More


After disasters, nuke industry wants us to live in its radioactive waste

The International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) creates guidelines for how much radiation people can be exposed to, and governments worldwide often follow these guides. ICRP is asking for comments on its draft report Radiological Protection of People and the Environment in the Event of a Large Nuclear Accident.
DEADLINE is September 19, 2019 if you would like to write and submit your own comments. Beyond Nuclear has already submitted comments and we are providing sample comments and points (scroll down) to help you.
ICRP recognizes that there is little or no chance for full environmental or societal recovery after a nuclear disaster; and that living with radioactive contamination will most likely be complicated, arduous, unstable and risky to health. Yet ICRP's recommendations are based on the assumption recovery is possible, and living with contamination is a viable choice. In reality, ICRP's recommendations would result in harm to public and environmental health, particularly threatening the health of women and children. In addition, these recommendations support programs that shift health and recovery responsibilities from industry and government, to individuals and communities. ICRP and industry sell these programs as empowering and educating stricken communities. The lived experience has been one of pressuring people to inhabit contaminated areas against their will in levels of radiation that research associates with disease. As government and industry funding that supports "self-protection" programs dwindles, these communities could be abandoned to their unnatural fate.

Sample comments and points. Please feel free to pick and choose and reorder in your own words. This will be more effective than just cutting and pasting:

I thank ICRP for the opportunity to comment on draft recommendations, TG93 Radiological Protection of People and the Environment in the Event of a Large Nuclear Accident and am pleased to submit the following:

ICRP’s recommendations for “recovery” from nuclear disasters will increase risk to health, particularly for women and kids, through its so-called “recovery” processes.

These processes support shifting health and recovery responsibilities from industry and government to individuals and communities, despite difficulties in implementing them over the long term. This makes the recovery process more about recovering the nuclear industry’s money and shattered reputation than the lives it has ruined.

These processes are instituted with the assumption that they will be carried out to the letter and that there will be no discernible health impacts, despite the difficulties in maintaining the processes and current research showing that low doses harm health.

ICRP recommendations make nuclear power a more appealing energy source than it actually is by convincing governments and people that recovery is possible and that living in a contaminated environment is workable. By ICRP’s own admission, this is likely not true.

ICRP should adjust its recommendations in the following manner:

  • ICRP should recommend that, at the least, women (particularly those of childbearing years) and children depart land contaminated by nuclear disasters.
  • ICRP should abandon encouraging broad public acceptance and use of any process that tries to convince people they can live in radioactive contamination, such as the “co-expertise processes” ICRP’s draft supports. Even if all processes are non-coercive and transparent, they may still fail to meet ICRP exposure recommendations; be abandoned over time due to cost; or abandoned due to the arduous nature of the constant vigilance necessary to maintain them.
  • ICRP should abandon optimization and justification principles, on which the “co-expertise process” relies, because these principles do not comply with the right to health per the United Nations Human Rights Council determination.
  • ICRP should recommend contaminated land not be used for agriculture.
  • ICRP should recommend food contaminated with man-made radionuclides not be consumed, particularly by women and children; and that import and export of contaminated food occur only for research purposes.

“Oops”: Manipulated childhood cancer data hides radiation impact, harms public health protection

This article relies heavily on postings at Fukushima Voice version 2e. Revelations and analysis below would be impossible without the painstaking translations and thoughtful discussion Fukushima Voice provides.

As the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe unfolded in March 2011, experts began applying lessons (some poorly learned or incomplete) from other nuclear disasters, primarily Chernobyl. After Chernobyl, it took nearly a decade for official experts to admit what data were revealing: exposure to radioiodine, one of the nuclides released from nuclear power disasters, increases thyroid cancer. Those who were children at the time of their exposure were particularly vulnerable. As radioactive clouds blanketed the areas surrounding the melting Fukushima reactors, officials were conflicted about the application of stable potassium iodide (KI) to keep radioiodine from penetrating the thyroids of members of the public.

Shunichi Yamashita, a doctor who had studied thyroid cancers in the Chernobyl-contaminated areas, expected no impact from radioiodine exposure. Reports differ, however, with some saying that Yamashita was publicly claiming no danger, while secretly telling experts he had serious concern about child thyroid cancer. He encouraged those who may have been exposed to protect themselves against radiation by being in a good mood and laughing. Fukushima Medical University (FMU) had taken the precautionary measure of distributing KI to its staff members and their children. FMU claimed this was to cajole nervous hospital staff into staying during the initial disaster, rather than to protect their health. The staff, however, was sworn to secrecy regarding this decision. Fukushima Prefecture failed to tell FMU to administer KI to the public. FMU waited for Yamashita to inform the issue and he said taking KI was unnecessary, so many in the public were left unprotected. “Yamashita admitted that he had given incorrect information shortly after the disaster when he advised FMU not to dispense potassium iodide tablets to children.” After he had made his decision, he reportedly looked at the fallout maps and said “Oops”.

In the wake of continuing contamination threat and public concern, the Fukushima Prefectural government tasked FMU with overseeing the Fukushima Health Management Survey (FHMS) of which thyroid ultrasound examinations (TUEs) were to be a part. Oversight committees were formed to issue reports on data collected through the FHMS. Yamashita was put in charge of the FHMS, making those who had claimed there was no danger from radioiodine exposure the ones in charge of researching the results of their mistake. In fact, Yamashita has “commented that the main aim of the Health Survey is to reassure people.”

Later, when Dr. Yamashita stepped down as head of the FHMS (he remains Vice President of FMU), some claimed he was leaving not because he ran the study poorly, but because he failed to communicate properly. (Yamashita is still involved with the study – his name appearing on much of the published research ostensibly based on FMU data.) Yet from the outset, FMU has provided incomplete and misleading thyroid data from the FHMS to the oversight committees, resulting in reports that are confusing, with conclusions that even by the committee’s reckoning are unreliable. Outside researchers have also noticed this poor quality. Despite obvious shortcomings, Fukushima thyroid data are being wielded to alter the way we study radiation’s impact on thyroid, and to downplay the world-wide increases current research is revealing.

Missing and misused data

FMU is keeping some primary clinical and demographic data hidden, even from the oversight committees, despite the committees’ repeated requests that these data be shared. FMU shares analytical results that are derived from this data but these results are often manipulated – such as with comparisons to data from Chernobyl data that have been misrepresented. At the most recent press conference, June 3, 2019, committee members were asked to grade the conclusions of their report based on the information provided by FMU. They graded the report reliability at under 60%, citing lack of dose information and missing cases.

FMU has failed to report all the thyroid surgeries conducted either by it or other facilities. Since childhood thyroid cancers are rare under normal circumstances, missing even one case can skew data results. Further, FMU has changed data presentation so that it is not comparable to previously collected data. This will probably curtail current, independent, ongoing research into any connection between thyroid cancers and radiation exposure.

FMU often uses methodologies for data analysis that are unclear, illogical, and therefore unable to be explained (Makino, in publication) much less replicated. Attempts to correct some of these shortcomings have not fully succeeded. Much of the data uncertainty is only discernible to those with Japanese language skills. The datasets have never been published in their entirety in Japanese and the fact that data are missing has never been officially disclosed in English.

For any health study, the most reliable data come from comparing disease outcomes among those who were exposed to the pollutant in question (in this case radioiodine), to those who were unexposed. Having an unexposed population is especially important when it is hard to know what level people were exposed to. The amount of disease in the unexposed population is considered a baseline, or the amount that would occur in a population naturally. If the amount of a disease, such as thyroid cancer, is increased in the exposed population compared to the unexposed, the pollutant in question may be responsible.

However, FMU is insisting that they can establish thyroid cancer baseline with data collected beginning in late 2011 using exposed populations. At first, researchers said that the number of thyroid cancers discovered between late 2011 through 2013 – dubbed the first round examinations, would determine baseline cases. Researchers are now claiming that true baseline may include cases that were discovered through 2016 when the second round examination was scheduled for completion. This shifting baseline imperils reliability of thyroid data and further calls into question the methodologies of the researchers tasked with assessing health impacts of radiation.

The minimum latency for thyroid cancer, according to the World Trade Center Health Program, is 1 year (in persons under 20 years old) to 2.5 years. These latencies are based, in part, on the National Academy of Sciences findings on low-dose radiation exposure. But FMU researchers are claiming that if any thyroid cancers were discovered between 2011 and 2013 (or now 2016) these cases would not be attributed to radiation. In fact, these cases could have developed or grown faster because of Fukushima radiation exposure according to accepted latency, but FMU would consider them “normal” or “baseline”, in effect hiding the true impacts of exposure.

FMU claims that the increased cases of thyroid cancer found through TUE are probably due to overdiagnosis, implying that these cancers were “quiet” and would have remained clinically hidden had monitoring not occurred. But enough of these cancers had metastasized to other areas of the body that surgical removal was indicated (slide 12) for the vast majority of them. In the absence of screening, these cancers would have been caught later, probably requiring more aggressive treatment, leading to a decreased quality of life.

Thyroid cancer data from pre-Fukushima Japan indicates some differences with the post-Fukushima thyroid cancers in the FHMS. For instance, tumor size at removal was smaller for FHMS cases, yet invasion to other tissues was higher, indicating not only that surgical removal was necessary, but that these post-Fukushima smaller tumors could be more aggressive. The pre-Fukushima data from Japan is a very small sample size, so further research should be done. It should be noted that tumor size and invasiveness from FMU cases most closely resemble not those of pre-Fukushima Japan, but those of Belarus post Chernobyl.

Despite misused and missing data, the committee made comparisons of these data to dose estimates from the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), which are based on deposition of radiocesium. But the deposition pattern of radiocesium does not necessarily mimic where radioiodine travelled, so doses using this method are full of “significant uncertainties” and should probably not be used. The irony is radioidine is a known exposure concern during the initial phase of a nuclear power catastrophe, so direct radioiodine measurements could and should have been taken. If they were taken, they should be used. This does not appear to be the case with radioiodine from Fukushima.

Mishandling of data misleads future research and jeopardizes public health

One FHMS committee member, Toru Takano, makes the highly controversial claim that thyroid cancer in children will eventually become “self-limiting” therefore, current screenings are leading to overdiagnosis and unnecessary surgery because these cancers will stop growing and not cause death. There is no scientific proof that childhood thyroid cancers will “self-limit” even after they start invading other organs. Nor is there scientific support for a subclinical pool of thyroid cancer in children, another claim made by FMU researchers. Following on the overdiagnosis trope, some are now questioning whether screening should also be curtailed because it is too psychologically damaging.

It is no surprise then, that the FHMS thyroid committees continue to debate the usefulness of screening, despite clinical indications that screenings have led to necessary surgical removal of invasive thyroid cancers. Yet international bodies like International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) are starting to recommend against systematic thyroid screening after a catastrophe like Fukushima, for fear of overdiagnosis and psychological impact. Additionally, IARC’s report, based on input from Fukushima researchers, recommends screening not begin at doses under 100-500 mGy. This despite studies showing increases of thyroid cancer as low as 25mGy for those exposed as children.

In short, Fukushima thyroid data collected and partially hidden from international researchers is being used to alter internationally accepted radiation exposure recommendations.  This is all the more ridiculous since the baseline for thyroid cancer after Fukushima uses people who were exposed to Fukushima radioiodine, rather than using unexposed children, even in the face of unknowable doses. 

A revelation that pediatric thyroid cancer increased “in the US 4.43% annually from 1998 to 2013” exposes the need to screen people in the wake of nuclear catastrophes, not backpedal on that responsibility.  Researchers concluded that this was a "true increase” (not due to increased surveillance –a claim made by researchers using the Fukushima data as evidence). Such data necessitate recognition that we have been exposed to nuclear pollutants from bomb and power fallout since the 1940’s. Failing to research the impact radiation has already had on our current disease environment makes it impossible to fully understand the compounding damage caused by additional radiological catastrophes like Fukushima.

In truth, we are no longer starting from zero man-made radiation exposure, so the concept of “overdiagnosis” is skirting irrelevance since a portion of our current disease burden already comes from exposure to anthropogenic radiation exposure. Given independent data and research (which we currently lack), one could tease out what part of thyroid cancers Fukushima radioiodine is responsible for. Teasing out the role older radioiodine exposures play in background thyroid cancer levels throughout the decades is more difficult. Commenting on the pediatric thyroid study, Dr. David Goldenberg, an ENT-otolaryngologist, Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine advocates for investigating "whether changes in environmental factors or lifestyle changes are driving part of this increase". He continues: “it is our role as physicians to protect our patients from complacency and undertreatment. Explaining away thyroid cancers as being subclinical or clinically insignificant is reminiscent of days past when we told our patients: ‘don’t worry, it’s good cancer.’”

Manipulation and concealment of Fukushima thyroid data masks the true impact of radioidine exposure. But it is also beginning to influence the way we study thyroid disease overall, having implications beyond study of Fukushima or Chernobyl. Steps to curb screenings and monitoring are pernicious because they enshrine the withholding of life-enhancing or life-saving treatment for victims of radiation exposure. Further, withholding data from independent researchers will disallow any effort to replicate study conclusions made by FMU and the thyroid committees. This is politics masquerading as authoritative and independent decision-making based on science; in reality, it has no true scientific support and is an attempt to bury the story of radiation’s impact on survivors of Fukushima.


Anime characters warn of radiation at 2020 Olympics: SIGN PETITION  

April 10th is Fukushima Fallout Awareness Network's annual Becquerel Awareness Day. It's an opportunity to focus on the dangers of man-made radiation's effects on our health and environment. FFAN believes that, by understanding the consequences of nuclear, we can expedite the transition to safe alternative energy. Becquerel Awareness Day is a collective push to do just that.
This year FFAN's very own heroic anime characters Geiger Girl and Becquerel Boy will share their unique messages online from April 10-14th but they need your help. Here's what you can do:  
Tokyo 2020 officials have enlisted many of Japan's most beloved anime characters to promote the radioactive Olympics. Let's give Geiger Girl and Becquerel Boy a fighting chance! Thank you for helping FFAN spread the word April 10-14th. More detail

What took so long? Scientists consider long-term health monitoring after radiation exposure

It’s been 40 years since the partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island (TMI) Unit 2 reactor in 1979 and more decades still since the first above ground atomic bomb explosions. Our atomic history is littered with assorted spills, releases, leaks, some secret, some not. Any of these national or local exposure events should have spurred our federal agencies to establish proper health registries. Such registries should have assessed health impacts not just in the short term, but also over lifetimes. Yet establishing functional and accessible registries for monitoring health of civilian individuals following radiation releases has been challenging. A meeting, attended by Beyond Nuclear and requested by the Centers for Disease Control, and hosted by the National Academy of Sciences, examined what needs to be considered when establishing a registry.

Better late than never? Yes and no. Gaping holes still exist between the science the experts prefer to study and the science we need them to study.  The intractable conflict persists between valuing theoretical representations or assumptions of exposure, over the lived reality of those exposed.

Three Mile Island mystifying silence

“No one really thought about bringing public health to the table until about two years ago” – Andrew Pickett, Pennsylvania Department of Public Health

The most glaring omission in a meeting on long-term health monitoring after radiation exposures in the U.S. was the near silence on Three Mile Island – the U.S.’s only admitted civilian reactor meltdown. At the very least, the meeting should have examined what went so very wrong for the residents around the facility when federal agencies incorrectly denied the population was exposed to high radiation levels; and then denied their responsibility for health investigations in the area. Was there a registry created? If not, why not? If so, what did it show and did it fall short? These questions were not addressed at this meeting. Instead, Andrew Picket, Pennsylvania Department of Public Health, contended that “[n]o one really thought about bringing public health to the table until about two years ago.” The communities around the ruined reactor thought about it. They asked for proper health investigations. Repeatedly. Loudly. They were continually patronized, belittled and rebuffed.

Instead of the health registry they deserved, the under-resourced public around TMI was left to the mercy of the courts to decide the question of harm. The court hamstrung health research so that even well-designed epidemiological studies couldn’t associate health impacts with radiation exposure. It was, in part, this misuse of health data that left those around TMI unrecognized and uncompensated; and the rest of the world deceived about what really happened. Increases of lung cancer and leukemia were associated with radiation exposure through blood evidence. Current research has found that thyroid cancers in the TMI community carry a biological mark specific to radiation exposure[1], are more aggressive and appear earlier[2], than thyroid cancers outside of the TMI community, indicating that the long-term impacts of TMI are still with us. Without understanding the myriad of missteps surrounding the TMI health investigations, we are being set up to repeat them. 

Theory versus life: Gaping holes remain

Science has shown that all radiation doses carry risk. Individuals who were exposed to low doses should be included in any registry, despite the concerns over cost that were voiced at the meeting. Women, children and pregnancy are at highest risk, so their exposure circumstances, particularly for any pregnant or potentially pregnant person and offspring, should be meticulously recorded. Although some at the meeting contended that the type of contamination event should matter for inclusion in the registry, it should be dose level that matters. Dose levels for inclusion should remain the same across all such events.

A registry needs to not only focus on the initial exposure’s impact over the long term, but also must account for continuing new exposures that often follow. This accounting is especially important since people are often forced to live in radiologically contaminated environments and eat contaminated food. While this meeting refreshingly moved past the “no immediate danger” trope into a desire to examine long-term impacts, it did not specifically consider impact of lower, chronic doses that societies have been asked to endure for the “benefit” of nuclear technology.

Ongoing exposures occur directly, but some of the damage they cause can be carried across generations. While a dose (internal or external) may be considered low to each generation, calculating only the dose to each individual generation may result in underestimating the total damage future generations will have to endure. This is another reason why even individuals exposed to so-called “low” doses should not be excluded from any registry. The concept of compounding generational dose was not present at this meeting, yet needs to be a consideration when building a health registry.

Radiological emergencies come in many forms. While the meeting focused on civilian meltdowns and atomic bomb explosions, many live with radiological contamination not just from single events, but from small releases over the long-term like those that have contaminated uranium mining and milling sites. For this reason, health registries should focus on the exposed, not only single events. 

Any health registry should focus on radiation’s impact on the human body, not just theoretical re-creation of doses that may or may not represent actual health damage. To its credit, this meeting featured two presenters who research the marks radiation leaves in exposed humans. These marks or “bioindicators” can play a large role in reliably reconstructing dose even years after exposure has occurred. Some bioindicator tests have been around since the mid-20th century, but have rarely been used to reconstruct radiation exposures to the public. While the meeting highlighted these techniques, concluding remarks were vague on future application. 

Although a summary is forthcoming, recommendations will not be given

The meeting offered some positive steps forward for establishing radiation health registries, like the desire to include low doses and the highlight of bioindicators. However, major issues still need to be addressed to establish a robust registry that will serve the public: the willful ignoring of public concerns at TMI and the ensuing setbacks, the struggle to account for enhanced susceptibility, the impacts of low-dose radiation across generations. The NAS expects to release a summary report of the meeting in Fall 2019, but by design, no recommendations will be forthcoming. To see the meeting in its entirety, visit the NAS webcast archive site.

[1]Goldenberg, D. Altered molecular profile in thyroid cancers from patients affected by the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. Laryngoscope. 2017 Jul;127 Suppl 3:S1-S9.

[2] Presentation of Renu Joshi, M.D. Nuclear Hotseat Podcast:  This Week’s RETURN TO TMI at 39 – SPECIAL.