Like most fathers, Fujimoto Yoji frets about the health of his young children. In addition to normal parental concerns about the food they eat, the air they breathe and the environment they will inherit, however, he must add one more: the radioactive fallout from a major nuclear disaster.
Three days after meltdown began at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant on 11 March, 2011, Fujimoto moved his two daughters, then aged four and three, to safety hundreds of kilometers away. In December, 2012 the eldest of the two was diagnosed with adenoidal cysts, the prelude to a type of cancer that often strikes the salivary glands. “I was told by the doctor that it’s very rare,” he says.
Although Mr Fujimoto and his family were in Chiba Prefecture, over 100km (60 miles) from the nuclear plant and in the opposite direction from the worst of the fallout, he believes his daughter inhaled enough radiation to cause her illness. “I’m convinced this is because of the Fukushima accident.”
On May 31, 2013 the United Nations said it did not expect to see elevated rates of cancer from Fukushima, though it recommended continued monitoring . The report by the U.N. Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation said prompt evacuation meant the dose inhaled by most people was low. But that assessment was at odds with a report by the World Health Organization in February that warned of an elevated cancer risk.
Although rumors of a spike in cancers, birth defects and abnormalities have swirled in the quarter century since Chernobyl, the UN found “no clearly demonstrated” rise in other cancers among affected populations. But that assessment has been widely questioned. “There is extensive documentation of other effects,” says Steve Wing, a renowned epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina.
Dr. Wing accepts that estimating the number of Chernobyl-induced cancers with any precision is not possible, “in large part because of a lack of monitoring of the radiation doses to downwind populations”, and because cancer estimates are largely based on “highly flawed” studies of A-bomb survivors.
But he says parents like Mr. Fujimoto have reason to worry. “We know that doses to populations are both un-quantified by the official agencies, that evidence suggests relatively high doses, and that children and women are more vulnerable to radiation. So the questions and deep concerns for the people in Fukushima will continue for the rest of their lives.”
That assessment is supported by Dr Alexey Yablokov, a Russian biologist who published “Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment,” a hotly disputed assessment of the disaster. <link>
Dr. Yablokov was in Japan in May to promote the Japanese translation of the book, which insists that the health impact of Chernobyl has been seriously underestimated. He didn’t soften his message for his audience in Tokyo. “I expect a growth in the numbers of thyroid cancers in Japan from next year,” he said.