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Cancers after 3/11: But who to trust?



October 31, 2015

Cancer and Fukushima: Who to trust?



by Philip Brasor

Special To The Japan Times

South Korean director Kim Ki-duk is a noted provocateur. His latest movie, “Stop,” is about a Japanese couple who were living near the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant when it suffered a meltdown in March 2011.

They evacuate to Tokyo, where the wife is pestered by an underground cult that insists she abort her presumably irradiated fetus, and she becomes convinced she should. Her husband is equally convinced there is nothing wrong with the baby and ties his wife up to prevent her from doing anything. Kim’s point seems to be that whichever position you take on the nuclear accident, it will invariably drive you insane.

But these positions do divide families. In an interview that appeared Oct. 20 on Norikoe Net TV, writer Minori Kitahara remarks to filmmaker Hitomi Kamanaka that there are no men in her latest documentary, “Little Voices from Fukushima,” which centers on a group of mothers trying to gain more information about the effects of radiation on their children’s health, because the authorities give them none. Kamanaka says these women’s husbands refused to appear on camera “even though they support what their wives are doing.”

There are even more mothers involved in the movement whose spouses forbade them to participate in the filming. Because of their jobs, these men gravitate toward the establishment stance, which in this case holds that there is no solid evidence showing that the radioactivity released by the Fukushima accident has had a harmful effect on area residents, including children. Public health in Fukushima is, according to Kamanaka, a gender-identified issue. “The nuclear industry is very much a man’s world,” she says.

The male-dominated media augments the confusion by throwing out stories related to radiation in Fukushima filled with unexplained statistics: three Fukushima hospitals ran tests on 2,700 children and discovered no radioactive cesium in their bodies; the International Atomic Energy Agency says an increase in the incidence of thyroid cancer in Fukushima is “unlikely.” Then Toshihide Tsuda, a professor at Okayama University, contradicts the purport of these stories by publishing a study in the journal of the International Society of Environmental Epidemiology that found thyroid cancer incidence rates of Fukushima residents “under the age of 19″ was 20 to 50 times the national level. News items that mention the study also point out that Tsuda’s conclusions are questioned by experts who call them “premature” or indicative of a “screening surge,” meaning that since so many people were tested more cancers than normal were bound to be found and these cancers may not have been caused by radiation.

Tsuda addressed these doubts last month during a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, explaining that even if a screening surge is factored in, the incidence rate for thyroid cancer is well above the norm. Moreover, the rate of cancer incidence four years after the accident is comparable to the rate of thyroid cancer incidence in Belarus four years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and that led to 6,000 children undergoing surgery. He called on the authorities to undertake “better and broader” screenings and implement measures to address this probable increase in cancer cases.

The operative word here is “cancer,” which dominates the conversation because of its terrifying overtones. However, it is treated by both sides as a quantitative matter: How many children will get cancer and how much of it was caused by radioactivity?

What’s missing is the qualitative dimension. Katsuya Kodama, a medical researcher whose specialty is the effects of radiation on cells, pointed out during a recent discussion on the Internet news channel DemocraTV that DNA strands are always being damaged and repair themselves as a matter of course. Radiation above a certain level, however, can cause more permanent damage, which may lead to cancerous cell growth.

But all cancers aren’t the same, and according to his research, the type of cell mutations found in the children in Fukushima don’t usually lead to “shortened life spans.” The small nodules found on the subjects’ thyroid glands are cancerous but that doesn’t mean they’re fatal. Thyroid cancer develops very slowly, but once a parent hears from a doctor that his or her child “has cancer,” the reaction is to have it removed immediately, even though it may not be necessary. Fifteen Chernobyl children diagnosed with thyroid cancer eventually died, but Kodama believes death was due to the effects of surgery and not the cancer itself. Though the number of thyroid cancer diagnoses has risen in the United States in recent decades, the number of annual deaths from the disease has remained unchanged. In Kodama’s view, the argument has less to do with the effects of radiation than with how the medical community addresses cancer.

He isn’t saying that radioactivity isn’t dangerous or that people living in the area shouldn’t be screened; he’s saying the matter should be explained medically and not just statistically. Strangely enough, his research, like Tsuda’s, has been rejected by the establishment. When he presented his findings to the Nuclear Regulation Authority, they told him they were afraid people would “misunderstand.” In accordance with the official line regarding the possible health crisis in Fukushima, it’s better not to talk about it at all.

This attitude only exacerbates the situation. Two years ago the government set up an advisory system for the regions affected by the nuclear accident. Residents could talk to experts about safety and relief measures. Last week, Tokyo Shimbun reported that the program has been a bust, since residents don’t trust anyone representing the authorities to give them straight answers. As one person involved in the program told the paper, “Everyone has different opinions about the effects of radiation, and it always leads to conflicts.”


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