10,000+ Excess Cancers Expected After Fukushima

Megan Brooks

March 09, 2016

More than 10,000 (and perhaps as many as 66,000) excess cases of cancer are expected among residents of the Fukushima area and the rest of Japan as a result of radiation exposure from the March 11, 2011, Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster, according to a report from Physicians for Social Responsibility and the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.

The report, 5 Years Living With Fukushima, gauges the cancer impact of the disaster among children, cleanup, and rescue workers and the broader population of Japan.

Key findings from the report, which was released at a press briefing March 9, include a 10-fold increase in the incidence of thyroid cancer in children.

As of February 2016, 116 children in Fukushima Prefecture had been diagnosed with aggressive and fast-growing, or already metastasizing, thyroid cancer, against an expected number of 1 to 5 cases per year, the report notes. For 16 of these children, a "screening effect" can be excluded, because their cancers developed within the past 2 years. An additional 50 children have been diagnosed with suspected thyroid carcinoma.

The report states that the incidence of thyroid cancer is 3.6 new cases per year among 100,000 children. Before the Fukushima nuclear meltdowns, the annual incidence of thyroid cancer among children in Japan was 0.35 per 100,000 children. This 10-fold increase in the incidence of thyroid cancer in children cannot be explained by a screening effect, the report notes.

There is another hard-hit group: cleanup and rescue workers. According to the report, more than 25,000 cleanup and rescue workers received the highest radiation dose while working at the site. On the basis of data supplied by the Tokyo Electric Power Company, the operator of the nuclear reactors, about 100 workers are expected to develop cancer as the result of excess radiation, and half will die, but the real dose levels the workers received are "most likely several times higher," the report charges.

Ongoing Catastrophe

In addition to the 200,000 Fukushima residents who were relocated to nearby makeshift camps after the disaster, where about 100,000 still live today, the exposed population includes millions of others in Japan. To this day, the population continues to be exposed to increased doses of radiation from minor amounts of radioactive fallout, as well as contaminated food and water. "Calculations of increased cancer cases overall in Japan range from 9,600 to 66,000 depending on the dose estimates," the report says.

Catherine Thomasson, MD, coeditor of the report and executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility, emphasized during the briefing that Fukushima is "often incorrectly seen as a past event. The reality is that radioactive emissions from the wrecked reactors continue to this day, both periodically into the atmosphere and in the form of 300 tons of leakage each day into the Pacific Ocean."

The nuclear catastrophe of Fukushima is still not under control. Dr Catherine Thomasson

It is "clear that the nuclear catastrophe of Fukushima is still not under control, and the process of dealing with the consequences for humans and the environment has only just begun," the report states.

"Unfortunately, the full health impact of Fukushima may never be known, due to Japan's failure to immediately track radiation releases as well as a disturbing lack of testing of the general population for radiation-related diseases and other impacts, such as miscarriages and fetal malformations, leukemia, lymphomas, solid tumors or cardiovascular disease," Dr Thomasson said.

The report also notes that independent research data on the effects of the disaster are needed. Most of the data for the report come from pro-nuclear organizations in Japan. Dr Thomasson noted that the "massive initial radioactive emissions were not recorded at the time of the triple-reactor meltdown, and some radioactive isotopes, including strontium-90, have not been measured at all by the government.

"What is badly needed now is a series of epidemiological studies to investigate the health consequences of the excess radiation exposure, especially diseases that can be detected and treated early," the report concludes.

Briefing speaker Alex Rosen, MD, pediatrician and vice-chair, International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War (Germany), said, "The important thing about this report is not so much counting cases of cancer or predicting how many cases of cancer there will be but pointing out that there are people in Japan right now whose right to life in a healthy environment is being taken away from them."

In a news release, Robert Alvarez, senior scholar specializing in nuclear disarmament, environmental, and energy policies, Institute for Policy Studies, and former senior policy advisor, US Department of Energy, said: "Radioactive fallout from the reactors has created de facto 'sacrifice zones' where human habitation will no longer be possible well into the future. In November 2011, the Japanese Science Ministry reported that long-lived radioactive cesium had contaminated 11,580 square miles (30,000 sq km) of the land surface of Japan. Some 4500 square miles — an area almost the size of Connecticut — was found to have radiation levels that exceeded Japan's allowable exposure rate of 1 mSV (millisievert) per year. Fourteen of the nation's 54 reactors are permanently shut down, as they are on fault lines, and only four have been restarted."

"It is unfortunate," added Tim Mousseau, PhD, professor of biological sciences, University of South Carolina, "that, in some regards, we have better and more complete data about the impacts of Fukushima radiation on trees, plants, and animals than we do on humans."

The full report is available online at https://www.psr.org/resources/fukushima-report-2016.html.


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