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Demystifying the Official Discourse on Childhood Thyroid Cancer in Fukushima via The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus

By Piers Williamson

[…]Between them, Yamashita and Suzuki give four ‘facts’ to support their denials of a link with radiation exposure. First, Suzuki holds that the unprecedented scale of the testing explains the cancers being found. This is the so-called ‘screening effect’. I have not found any public statements by Yamashita taking that line, but he presumably supports it because Suzuki has been speaking as a representative of a programme overseen by Yamashita.8 Second, Suzuki and Yamashita state that it is too early to judge because thyroid cancer did not appear until at least four years after Chernobyl.9 This is actually the reason why Fukushima Prefecture did not originally plan to start tests until three years later.10 Third, they claim that the radiation levels in Fukushima are lower than those in Chernobyl. Fourth, the main cause of thyroid cancer after Chernobyl was ingestion of contaminated food products, especially milk. By contrast, Japan had prompt and effective food restrictions.11
Furthermore, both have commented that the main aim of the Health Survey is to reassure people,12 apparently advocating an a priori conclusion that there is no problem. For Yamashita and Suzuki, therefore, the real risk from radiation is psychological. This attitude provoked criticism from Fukushima residents that the survey was being run on the presupposition that there was no problem.13 It was openly challenged by Professor Shimizu Shuji, an economist at Fukushima University, at the Investigative Commission on 19 May 2014. He noted that because the Health Survey was proceeding on the assumption that there would be no health effects if exposed to under 100 milli Sieverts [the result of immediate radiation release], and that no one in Fukushima was exposed to 100 milli Sieverts or more, then logically that meant that the conclusion had already been reached and so there was no need to run the Health Survey in the first place.14
The question is thus: are the ‘facts’ that Yamashita and Suzuki assert strong enough to support their outright denial of a link between radiation exposure and the thyroid cancers being found in Fukushima? I argue that they are not, and attempt to show that each of the four ‘facts’ should be viewed skeptically. I point to other ‘facts’ from ‘alternative discourses’, and hold that greater circumspection amongst experts is necessary.
Despite Suzuki and Yamashita’s insistence on a four-year incubation period, the latest knowledge on thyroid cancer from the US National Academy of Sciences is that thyroid cancer can appear in minors after one year of exposure to ionizing radiation, and in adults after two and a half years. Thyroid cancers resulting from exposure to ionizing radiation are also particularly aggressive, as discovered after Chernobyl and reconfirmed in a recent study published in the journal Cancer. In fact, there is evidence that thirteen thyroid cancers appeared in Belarus under four years after Chernobyl and Yamashita himself recorded these cases. Additionally, eleven of the thirteen cases were in children over five years old. This weakens another assertion that Suzuki sometimes makes, namely that thyroid cancers after Chernobyl were concentrated in children under five, and so because the cases being found in Fukushima are in children over five they cannot be related to radiation exposure. More recently, in 2011, the Ukrainian government also reported almost immediate cases of thyroid cancer after Chernobyl.
It also appears that adults can be affected at half the exposure level previously said by the IAEA to only affect people under forty. Due to the latest data from Chernobyl, in 2011 the IAEA reduced the exposure level for potassium iodide tablets from 100 milli Sieverts to 50 milli Sieverts and the Japanese government followed suit, allowing people over 40 to receive tablets, although it rejects pre-distribution in violation of WHO guidelines. Furthermore, the WHO has, since 1999, set the limit at 10 milli Sieverts for infants, pregnant women, and women who are breastfeeding. These exposure levels may or may not be underestimates, but the point is that an important ‘fact’, on which government policy was based, has recently changed into a falsehood.
Another false argument is that because contaminated milk was the cause of thyroid cancers at Chernobyl, children in Fukushima are safe because Japan had strict food regulations. In reality, UNSCEAR found that Japanese food regulations were inadequate at best, and the WHO recognized inhalation as a ‘pathway’ for children in Fukushima. The related argument that radiation levels in Fukushima were low is also dubious. Yamashita admitted that he was wrong to advise against the dispensation of potassium iodide tablets. When he saw the SPEEDI data he realized he had made a mistake. In contrast, the staff of FMU received iodide tablets when high radiation levels were detected near the university. Furthermore, the Diet’s Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission found that the NSA had advised issuing iodide tablets but the fax it sent vanished and its advice was not followed in most localities. Eiichiro Ochiai notes that the latest research indicates that the exposure levels in Fukushima may be as high or higher than after Chernobyl.
Graves doubts over exposure levels only remain because individual exposure levels were not recorded at the time when they should have been. When Tokonami Shinji attempted to take measurements shortly after the explosions the prefectural authorities stopped him. Data that he did manage to garner about a month later show exposure levels over the 50 milli Sievert threshold currently held by the IAEA. Additionally, UNSCEAR estimates thyroid exposure levels of up to 83 milli Sieverts. IPPNW notes that normal annual thyroid exposure is 1 milli Sievert and, using UNSCEAR’s 2013 figures, calculates 1016 thyroid cancers, mostly in children, with around 70 deaths.
Denialists like Suzuki and Yamashita have not only been promoting false arguments, they have also been taking aggressive political action through involvement in ‘secret meetings’, in failing to disclose knowledge about Chernobyl, and in failing to disclose data on symptomatic cases in Fukushima that may undermine the ‘screening effect’ hypothesis. Unfortunately, this kind of political behavior is also present in authoritative international bodies such as the ICRP (taking bribes), the IAEA (an openly pro-nuclear organization), the WHO (delaying an ultimately inadequate investigation of depleted uranium in Iraq; subservience to the IAEA), and UNSCEAR (staffed largely by representatives from pro-nuclear states who are not required to declare qualifications or possible conflicts of interest). Their unfailingly optimistic pronouncements are open to criticism in light of other independent research.
One frequent oversight is that, as the US National Academy of Sciences shows, females are more vulnerable than males, and children more than adults. Steven Starr notes that these differences are often left out of risk models. Thyroid cancer may be an exception, however, with Shimizu Kazuo noting elevated rates amongst male children in Fukushima, as found after Chernobyl. Another frequent oversight, as Tsuda and IPPNW highlight, is to assert that there will be ‘no observable increases’ (WHO) or ‘no discernible changes’ (IAEA). These conclusions inevitably dominate the media headlines conveying the impression that there is no problem. In actuality, this does not mean there will be no increases, but serves to hide those that do occur under the concept of ‘statistical significance’. Neither do these observations take account of accelerated disease, which is a real concern for people affected because they die earlier than they otherwise would have. Indeed, official and independent estimates of general excess cancers vary from a couple of thousand to hundreds of thousands. While the differences are huge, and one can point to a pronuclear/antinuclear divide, the point is that none actually predict an absence of health effects, the UNSCEAR and WHO headlines notwithstanding. This contradicts the official FMU position that is only concerned with an increase in ‘anxiety’.

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