Health fall­out from Fukushima is mainly men­tal: stud­ies

The China Post - - LIFE -

The most last­ing health im­pact of the Fukushima nu­clear dis­as­ter will likely be psy­cho­log­i­cal not phys­i­cal, ac­cord­ing to a trio of stud­ies pub­lished Fri­day in The Lancet.

More­over, the men­tal health toll comes not only from the trauma of dis­lo­ca­tion and the specter of harm­ful ra­di­a­tion, but from de­fi­cien­cies in the way civic and health of­fi­cials man­aged the cri­sis, the ar­ti­cles ar­gued.

The melt­down at the Fukushima Dai­ichi fa­cil­ity in March 2011, pro­voked by a mas­sive earth­quake and tsunami, is one of only five nu­clear power plant ac­ci­dents to be rated five or higher since the ad­vent of atomic energy.

It re­sulted in the evac­u­a­tion of 170,000 peo­ple within a 30-kilo­me­ter (19-mile) ra­dius of the plant, and caused mas­sive dis­rup­tion of fam­ily life and lo­cal economies.

In 2014, half of more than 20,000 evac­u­ated house­holds who re­sponded to a gov­ern­ment sur­vey were still sep­a­rated from fam­ily more than three years af­ter catas­tro­phe struck.

But phys­i­cal health im­pacts have been lim­ited.

In con­trast to the 1986 ex­plo­sion in Ch­er­nobyl that pro­voked an in­crease in thy­roid can­cer among chil­dren in af­fected ar­eas and per­haps other can­cers yet to be de­tected, the Fukushima de­ba­cle is un­likely to cause hikes in can­cer rates due to ra­di­a­tion ex­po­sure, ac­cord­ing the a 2013 U.N. sci­en­tific re­port.

How­ever, even if “no dis­cernible phys­i­cal health ef­fects are ex­pected, psy­cho­log­i­cal and so­cial prob­lems, largely stem­ming from dif­fer­ences in risk per­cep­tion, have had a dev­as­tat­ing im­pact on peo­ple’s lives,” com­mented Fukushima Med­i­cal Univer­sity’s Koichi Tani­gawa, who led 15 ex­perts in as­sess­ing health im­pacts from ma­jor nu­clear ac­ci­dents world­wide.

Re­peated evac­u­a­tions and longterm dis­place­ment, frac­tured fam­i­lies, dis­rupted ser­vices and the lin­ger­ing un­cer­tainty about the health con­se­quences of in­vis­i­ble ra­di­a­tion caused wide­spread anx­i­ety.

The per­cent­age of adults ex­pe­ri­enc­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal stress re­mains five times higher among evac­uees than the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion, and deaths among the el­derly — an es­pe­cially vul­ner­a­ble pop­u­la­tion — in­creased three­fold in the three months af­ter the ac­ci­dent.

In the same 2014 sur­vey, 68 per­cent of re­spon­dents re­ported men­tal or phys­i­cal health prob­lems in their fam­i­lies, 57 per­cent dis­turbed sleep,

and 47 per­cent de­pres­sion moods.

Fear of Stigma

The stud­ies also fault short­com­ings in emer­gency man­age­ment that added ad­di­tional sources of stress.

Mixed mes­sages about the sever­ity of the ac­ci­dent and “re­stric­tion of in­for­ma­tion ... might fur­ther in­crease public anx­i­ety, lead­ing to dis­tri­bu­tion of in­ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion and public dis­trust,” one of the stud­ies con­cluded.

Health of­fi­cials, the re­searchers said, failed to an­tic­i­pate how cer­tain sit­u­a­tions might cre­ate ad­di­tional psy­cho­log­i­cal pres­sure. And a poor un­der­stand­ing of how peo­ple per­ceive the threat of ra­di­a­tion led to er­rors in com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

Screen­ing for ra­di­a­tion ex­po­sure, for ex­am­ple, to the thy­roid gland — sus­cep­ti­ble to ra­di­a­tion can­cer — in many cases added stress rather than re­liev­ing it.

Many young women in af­fected ar­eas feared be­ing stig­ma­tized be­cause of pre­sumed im­pacts on fu­ture preg­nan­cies and ge­netic in­her­i­tance.

“The ma­jor ef­fect on health of the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion from both Ch­er­nobyl and Fukushima is not re­lated to the ac­tual ef­fects of ra­di­a­tion, but the fear of ra­di­a­tion,” noted Geral­dine Thomas, a pro­fes­sor of molec­u­lar pathol­ogy at Im­pe­rial Col­lege Lon­don, af­ter read­ing the re­ports.

“An over-re­ac­tion can pro­duce risks in its own right that may be greater than the health risks posed by the ac­ci­dent it­self,” she wrote in a com­ment.

Twenty-one of the world’s nearly 440 nu­clear power plants have more than one mil­lion peo­ple liv­ing within a 30 kilo­me­ter ra­dius, and six have more than 3 mil­lion.

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