Academic journal article Asian Perspective

A Public Health Perspective on the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster

Academic journal article Asian Perspective

A Public Health Perspective on the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster

Article excerpt

The Fukushima nuclear disaster is far from over and remains a global health concern. While evacuations, sheltering, reducing intake of contaminated food, and other measures reduced radiation exposures, both the immediate and longer-term public health responses to the disaster leave major room for improvement. Commercially and institutionally, vested interests have undermined public health and safety. KEYWORDS: Fukushima nuclear disaster, global public health, radiation risks, right to health.

IN THIS ARTICLE I REVIEW KEY ASPECTS OF OUR KNOWLEDGE ABOUT IONizing radiation and health, and I provide a public health perspective on priority measures to protect the people and environment affected by the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Because radioactive fallout spreads without regard to borders and affects people indiscriminately, any nuclear disaster that disperses radioactive materials in the air, soil, or water is of global concern. The public health aspects of the Fukushima disaster are therefore of global health significance. A disaster with uncontrolled radioactive release is possible at any nuclear plant.

Ionizing Radiation and Human Health

The Danger

Ionizing radiation is intensely biologically injurious, not because it contains extraordinarily large amounts of energy but because that energy is bundled and delivered to cells in large packets. The energy of a diagnostic X-ray, for example, is typically around 15,000 times as large as the energy of a chemical bond. Large complex molecular chains, especially of DNA, define to a considerable extent who we are, regulate many biological processes, and are both our most precious inheritance and the most vital legacy we pass on to our children. These large molecules are particularly vulnerable to disruption by the large packets of energy in ionizing radiation. The result is that a dose of ionizing radiation lethal to a human being can contain no more energy than the heat in a sip of hot coffee.

Ionizing radiation in doses over 100-250 milliSievert (mSv) causes acute effects detectable by common blood testing, and symptoms of acute radiation sickness develop at higher doses. Doses over 100 mSv cause a variety of both reversible and persistent effects in different organs. At all doses, without any threshold below which there is no effect, including doses too low to cause any short-term effects or symptoms, radiation exposure increases the long-term risk of cancer and chronic disease for the rest of the life of those exposed. The most recent published data from studies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors confirm a linear dose-response relationship between radiation dose and cancer risk, with no threshold (Ozasa et al. 2012). The overall increase in risk of solid cancer incidence (occurrence) across a population is about one in 10,000 (and about half that for cancer deaths) for each 1 mSv of additional radiation exposure (NAS 2006). The increased risk for leukemia (blood cancer) is about 10 percent of this (NAS 2006).

The most widely accepted standard for radiation protection (excluding medical radiation) stipulates a maximum permissible dose of ionizing radiation for members of the public in nonemergency situations of 1 mSv per year. One mSv/year corresponds to about 0.11 microSv per hour, the most common unit of measurement of external radiation used in Japan after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. For workers exposed to radiation in the course of their occupation, the most widely accepted standard is for a maximum permissible level of 100 mSv over five years, with no more than 50 mSv in any one year. These limits are the statutory legal limits imposed by 1972 industrial safety regulation for nuclear industry workers in Japan. The Japanese Rules for Prevention of Damage from Ionizing Radiation stipulate that women should receive no more than 5 mSv over three months in occupational settings. The law also prohibits entry of ordinary citizens into "controlled areas" where the radiation level is higher than 1. …

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