Nukewatch Quarterly Summer 2021
By Joseph Mangano
The recent 10-year mark since the three catastrophic reactor meltdowns at Fukushima-Daiichi poses questions, such as “How many people were harmed by the huge amount of radioactivity released?”
The answer, according to many nuclear proponents: zero. The response to that answer? “Prove it.”
From the outset, the crescendo of cheerleaders asserting Fukushima harmed nobody has been loud and steady. No cancer cases, no cancer deaths. As the reactors exploded, as thousands streamed out of the area, and as enormous volumes of contaminated water poured into the Pacific Ocean, the party line has remained unchanged.
Is there any proof, any data, any evidence, supporting this belief? Only one study is under way in Japan, which identified several hundred local children who developed thyroid cancer since 2011. But researchers at the Medical University of Fukushima are quick to explain that the big number, in a disease rarely seen in children, is due only to more extensive testing, not radiation exposure.
Any objective researcher would not accept this as “proof” and would call for studies that go beyond child thyroid cancer. The meltdown is arguably the worst environmental disaster in history. Fallout affected all of Japan, and traveled thousands of miles. But studying effects on human health is left to independent researchers.
Fukushima and the United States
The Radiation and Public Health Project (RPHP) has published 38 peer-reviewed journal articles on health effects of nuclear power emissions. RPHP members believe relatively small doses of exposure affect human health — a fact supported by hundreds of studies in the National Academy of Science’s Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation (BEIR) reports.
While Japan was the site of the disaster, and thus hardest-hit, exposure and health data from that nation has been largely unavailable. I and my colleague Dr. Janette Sherman (who died in 2019), have responded by building a database in the United States for the past 10 years.
Exposure data was first. Airborne fallout arrived on the US west coast four days after the meltdowns, and moved across the continent. Environmental Protection Agency measurements of gross beta radiation in the air from March 17 to April 30 were highest in Alaska, California, Hawaii, Oregon, and Washington (7.35 times higher than the year before, vs. just 2.38 times higher for the rest of the US.
Precipitation was next. Airborne radiation enters the food chain and human bodies from rain and snow. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data showed that in Washington state, precipitation rose from 7.76 to 12.48 inches from March/April 2010 to March/April 2011. In Oregon, the jump between the two periods was from 7.46 to 10.31 inches. These large increases made these two states the rainiest area of the country — in an area hardest-hit by Fukushima fallout.
Large rises in radiation and precipitation made the five Pacific states the focus of our studies.
Quick Publication, Quick Backlash
Finding health data was next. Most official statistics require several years to be made public; but with the constant “no cancers at Fukushima” in our ears, Dr. Sherman and I moved quickly.
One immediately available source was the Centers for Disease Control’s weekly estimate of deaths in 38 US cities, 30% of the nation. In the 14 weeks after Fukushima fallout arrived, deaths rose 4.46% compared to the same period in 2010. The change for the prior 14 weeks was 2.34%.
Projecting these changes to the entire US, suggested 14,000 additional deaths had occurred. Our article on the findings was published in the International Journal of Health Services in December 2011. We noted that RPHP founders Jay Gould and Ernest Sternglass had shown a similar spike after the Chernobyl meltdown of 1986, and estimated 15,000 excess deaths in the United States (American Medical Association News, August 1988).
The response was immediate and strong. Angry responses were published in the journal — none of which explained the unusual increase. Some took to blasting the research on social media. Final figures showed 9,000 excess deaths — with the greatest gaps in the hard-hit Pacific states.
Focus Shifts to Infants
We shifted our work to infants, who are more susceptible to radiation than adults. We followed our first article with three more in rapid order (March 2013, December 2013, and March 2015), each published in the Open Journal of Pediatrics, and each addressing infant health changes on the west coast.
In the five states, newborns born with hypothyroidism, which can be caused by radioactive iodine, jumped 16%, from 281 to 327 cases, in the period March 17 to December 31 (2010 vs. 2011). In the rest of the US, cases fell 4%. The biggest jump was in the first 10 weeks after Fukushima (28%). Rises were statistically significant.
Even so, the number of cases was small. We asked the California screening program to do a special program, in which we could analyze the “borderline” newborn hypothyroid cases — those who had a high thyroid stimulating hormone level but didn’t quite qualify as confirmed cases. We found confirmed plus borderline cases rose 27% from March 17 to December 31 (2010 vs. 2011) — with a much larger number of cases (2,137 in 2011).
The next frontier was birth defects. Radiation exposure is well known to raise risk of defects in newborns, and the CDC published statistics for five of them — anencephaly, cleft palate, down syndrome, Gastroschisis, and Spina Bifida. The number of newborns born April through November with any of these anomalies jumped 13%, from 600 to 672, from 2010 to 2011. In the rest of the US, the number declined 4% — making the difference significant. Rises occurred in each state, for each defect, for babies born prematurely or full-term.
Infant Deaths and Child Cancers
In addition to immediate effects on newborns, higher numbers of infant deaths and child cancers would be expected. We plan to continue our work by focusing on these populations in the five Pacific states.
The study of Fukushima casualties is just beginning. A full review will eventually include adults, which will take decades. Of course, Japan will have the most serious hazards, as its people received the greatest radiation doses. Studies will be needed there, and throughout the world, before the full health story of the 2011 meltdowns is known.
— Joseph Mangano, MPH MBA, is executive director of the Radiation and Public Health Project and author of Mad Science: The Nuclear Power Experiment (OR Books 2012).