(CN) – To serve in the U.S. Armed Forces, you must meet certain health and fitness requirements: you must be fit to serve. But a healthy group of young service men and women – many in their 20s – have come down with serious health problems since serving on a humanitarian mission to Fukushima, Japan, following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that led to a nuclear meltdown of the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TepCo) nuclear power plant.
Service members have faced cancer, brain tumors, birth defects, and other rare health problems since being exposed to radiation from the Fukushima plant. Some have even died.
Courthouse News talked to some of these service members to find out what’s happened since they came home from Fukushima and why they believe TepCo needs to take responsibility.
Radiation impacts on sailors’ health
Piekutowski left the Marine Corps shortly after his service in Fukushima. He began exhibiting extreme weight loss and limb swelling months later, in November 2012. He experienced eyesight loss and vomited stomach acid before going to the emergency room on Christmas Day.
He was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia at the age of 21.
“The type of leukemia I had usually is something you get later in life. Early onset can be caused from being around certain types of chemicals,” Piekutowski said.
The following days and months included chemotherapy treatments, but after his leukemia came back less than six months into remission, the Marine received a stem cell transplant. He’s since faced day-long doctor appointments with specialists which require him to take time off work and travel out of town.
Piekutowski disputes TepCo’s contention the service members who’ve faced cancer and other health problems since returning from Fukushima were predisposed to those conditions. The utility claims their health problems are not from the radiation exposure.
“If that were the case, TepCo would have disseminated all the information it should have,” Piekutowski said, referring to the utility’s initial withholding of information after the nuclear meltdown.
“If we were predisposed to a genetic mutation or illness, why lie and cover things up?”
Torres and Piekutowski are part of a class action of over 420 sailors suing TepCo and General Electric in San Diego’s federal court. While eight of the sailor-plaintiffs have already died – most from cancer – since the first case was filed in 2012, many others have yet to experience any symptoms and want Tepco to foot the bill for medical monitoring and testing and future health care costs over their lifetime.
The class is represented by high-profile attorneys – former Sen. John Edwards and his daughter Cate Edwards with Edwards Kirby out of North Carolina, along with Charles Bonner of Bonner & Bonner in Sausalito, California, and Paul Garner of San Diego.
In a phone interview, Cate Edwards said there are 23 plaintiffs living with cancer, many of whom served in Fukushima in their early 20s and some as young as 18 years old. In addition to the group facing cancer diagnoses, many of the sailors have degenerative diseases, with some losing mobility and use of their arms and legs in addition to experiencing back problems and eyesight loss.
A 26-month-old toddler born to a sailor-father who served in Fukushima died from brain and spine cancer. Another female sailor opted to end a pregnancy after finding out the fetus had severe birth defects, Edwards said.
Read more at US Sailors Face Grim Diagnoses After Fukushima Mission