However evacuees were found to be almost five times more likely than average to have suffered psychological distress. Experts writing in the special edition of The Lancet, published to mark the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb attacks, said that the social and psychological aftermath of a nuclear accident was too often overlooked.
Among people affected by the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, rates of depression and post-traumatic stress remain high, and a UN assessment conducted in 2006 concluded that the incident’s effect on mental health was the most serious resulting public health issue.
Exposure to radiation can increase the risk of cancer throughout life, and those exposed to very high doses can suffer severe and sometimes fatal symptoms known as acute radiation syndrome (ARS). At Chernobyl, 134 workers involved in the emergency response developed and 28 died. No such cases were reported at Fukushima.
In a study led by Dr Koichi Tanigawa, of Fukushima Medical University, experts said that along with the immediate radiation risks, the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people created a new wave of public health impacts.
However, there are still problems with stigma, Dr Tanigawa’s study reported, particularly among women from Fukushima, owing to “misconceptions” about the effects of radiation on future pregnancy and children’s health.
Professor Simon Wessely, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said that the Lancet series showed that “the psychological and social consequences of nuclear accidents are more profound, long-lasting, divisive and difficult to manage than the more direct consequences of radiation leaks.”
“In future, far more attention needs to be given to community engagement and choice, and less to the extreme risk aversion which currently dominates thinking,” he said.