Why the Cancer Cases in Fukushima Aren’t Likely Linked to the Nuclear Disaster via National Geographic

An increase in thyroid cancer may just reflect the intensive testing of children.

Three years after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, reports are surfacing of a “cancer cluster.” The Japanese government has reportedly tested 254,000 of the 375,000 children and adolescents in Fukushima Prefecture and found 33 cases of thyroid cancer. In Japan, the rate of this disease in 10- to 14-year-olds is typically one or two per million.

The Japanese government is investigating the matter, but it has already stated that the high prevalence is not a direct result of the radiation released during the meltdown. (See: “Pictures: A Rare Look Inside Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant.”)

To learn more, we interviewed Norman Kleiman, who is on the faculty of the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in New York City.


But there was definitely a “cancer cluster” of thyroid cases after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, right?

There were somewhere between 5,000 and 7,000 cases [among Chernobyl’s children]. But children there were the most heavily exposed population of individuals, except for the people who worked in the plant. (Read “Inside Chernobyl” in National Geographic magazine.)

Why were those children exposed to so much radiation?

One of the great failures of Chernobyl was that the government of the Soviet Union did not immediately take steps to protect the public, especially the vulnerable—children and pregnant mothers—from potential radioactive fallout. (See: Pictures: “‘Liquidators’ Endured Chernobyl 25 Years Ago.”)

The large explosion at Chernobyl sent a plume of material way up in the sky containing a variety of radioactive isotopes, including iodine 131. Iodine is required for thyroid function, and if you have radioactive iodine in a food or water supply, it’s going to go to your thyroid.

Iodine 131 has a short half-life—eight days—but it fell on the ground. Cows, sheep, and goats ate the grass and ingested small amounts of radioactive iodine, and dairy products made from their milk were given to young children for about a month after the accident. So children were drinking and eating radioactive-contaminated dairy products, and had an enormous concentration of radioactive iodine in their thyroids.

Were Fukushima kids also consuming contaminated food?

The lesson learned from Chernobyl was to immediately shut down food and water sources after the Fukushima accident. Any animal that could be a source of dairy products was banned from food supplies, and water systems were tested for radioactive contamination. So there really was no exposure of children to these high levels of radioactivity.

Read more at Why the Cancer Cases in Fukushima Aren’t Likely Linked to the Nuclear Disaster

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