Statement of IPPNW Germany regarding participation in the Olympic Games in Japan
In July 2020, the Olympic Games will start in Japan. Young athletes from all over the world have been preparing for these games for years and millions of people are looking forward to this major event.
We at IPPNW Germany are often asked whether it is safe to travel to these Olympic Games in Japan either as a visitor or as an athlete or whether we would advise against such trips from a medical point of view. We would like to address these questions.
To begin with, there are many reasons to be critical of the Olympic Games in general: the increasing commercialization of sports, the lack of sustainability of sports venues, doping scandals, the waste of valuable resources for an event that only takes place for several weeks and corruption in the Olympic organizations to name just a few. However, every four years, the Olympic Games present a unique opportunity for many young people from all over the world to meet other athletes and to celebrate a fair sporting competition – which was the initial vision of the Olympic movement. Also, the idea of Olympic peace and mutual understanding between nations and people is an important aspect for us as a peace organization.
Fukushima…and no end in sight
Regarding the Olympic Games in Japan, another factor comes into play: the Japanese government is using the Olympic Games to deflect from the ongoing nuclear catastrophe in the Northeast of the country.
The government wants people to think that the situation in Fukushima is under control and people in the region are safe from radioactive contamination. The president of the German Olympic Sports Association, Alfons Hörmann, recently went so far as to say that “the regions close to the Olympic Games are safe from environmental disasters”.
Of course, this is an untenable assertion for a region with extremely high seismic activity. Regarding the situation around the destroyed nuclear reactors in Fukushima, the situation is far from “under control” even today. […]
With each storm, radioactive particles from the forests and mountains are brought back to the villages and cities – even to those previously decontaminated. International regulations stipulate that the population should not be exposed to more than one millisievert of additional radiation after a nuclear accident. In areas around Fukushima already earmarked for resettlement, the population will be exposed to radiation dosages that can range up to 20 mSv. As an organization of physicians, we have repeatedly pointed out the resulting health risks for the population of the affected regions, which we consider unacceptable.
While the nuclear catastrophe is a daily reality for the people living in the area and will be for many years to come, the situation for visitors is of course different. To answer the question of whether a trip to Japan or participation in the Olympic Games is acceptable from a medical point of view, a variety of aspects must be taken into consideration:
General information regarding radiation risks
Generally, the radiation exposure in the contaminated regions in Japan poses increased health risks. However, especially for short-term visits, these risks can be considered small – as long as individuals are not specifically sensitive to radiation. But it needs to be stressed that there is no threshold in radiation dose, below which it could be considered safe or without negative effects on health.
It is important to know that even when radiation exposure limits are met, certain health risks cannot be ruled out. Exposure limits are derived from the politically acceptable risk of disease that the government thinks the population would be willing to accept. The question is not “At which dose can we expect health risks to occur?” but rather “Which health risks are still acceptable for society?”
Where you travel
While large parts of Japan have remained relatively unaffected by the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe, there are still radiation hot-spots in the prefectures of Fukushima, Tochigi, Ibaraki, Miyagi and Chiba. Inhalation or ingestion of radioactive particles with food or water poses a considerable health risk. It is not sufficient to rely on officially published dose measurements, as even previously decontaminated areas can always become recontaminated with radioactive particles from the forests and mountains around Fukushima through pollen, rains, forest fires or storms.
However, these official measurements need to be treated with caution since the authorities have a vested interest in systematically downplaying radiation effects and ambient dose levels. While officially published dose levels can be low, just a few meters away from the monitoring post you can find local hot-spots due to contaminated foliage, dust or pollen.
Unfortunately, for symbolic as well as political reasons, sport arenas in Fukushima were selected to hold softball and baseball competitions during the Olympic Games 2020. Even the symbolic first competitions of the Olympics are to be held here. At the same time, the competition calendar was arranged in a way to ensure that no western teams would compete here. This may sound cynical, but it seems that the organizers expected problems regarding acceptance of these sensitive venues. Consequently, European visitors and athletes will most likely not have to travel to Fukushima in order to compete or watch their team.