Doctors Say UN Science Report Systematically Underestimates Health Impact of Fukushima Catastrophe
October 17, 2013
As physicians concerned with the effects of radioactive fallout on human health and the ecosystem, we have reviewed the upcoming United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) report to the UN General Assembly. We appreciate the effort made by UNSCEAR committee members to evaluate the extensive and complex data concerning the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe. While parts of the UNSCEAR report will be useful in the future to assess the consequences of the nuclear meltdowns on public health and the environment, we believe the 2013 UNSCEAR report systematically underestimates the true extent of the catastrophe. Many of the assumptions are based on the two WHO/IAEA reports published in May 2012 and February 2013, which did not accurately portray the true extent of radiation exposure, followed faulty assumptions, ignored the ongoing radioactive emissions over the past 2½ years and excluded non-cancer effects of radiation.
Regarding UNSCEAR’s current report to the UN General Assembly, we find the following 10 issues to be most critical:
- It was mainly the direction of the wind that prevented a larger catastrophe in Japan
- The nuclear catastrophe is ongoing and continues to be a source of radioactive emissions
- Estimates of radiation emissions and exposure should be based on neutral sources
- The endorsement of Fukushima produce increases the risk of radioactive exposure
- Whole Body Counters underestimate the extent of radioactive exposure
- TEPCO's employee dose assessments cannot be relied upon
- The special vulnerability of the fetus has to be taken into account in regards to radiation
- Thyroid malignancies and other cancers have to be monitored for several decades
- Monitoring should also occur for non-cancer diseases and genetic radiation effects
- Comparisons between nuclear fallout and background radiation are misleading
As of August 20, 2013, 18 children in Fukushima were confirmed to have thyroid cancer, and 25 more have suspect biopsies, indicating possible malignancies. Although it is not possible to determine whether or not these cancers are radiation-induced, Japanese cancer statistics suggest an incidence of less than 1 case of thyroid cancer in this population per year. Moreover, the number of cases is likely to increase, as about 2/5 of the 369,813 Fukushima children have yet to receive their first thyroid ultrasound examination and about half of the children with suspect results are still awaiting their follow-up exams. The government failed to protect children by refusing to distribute stable iodine and by raising the permissible annual exposure limits to 20 mSv, thus effectively forcing many children to live in radioactively contaminated areas. School officials are ignoring radiation hot spots just a few feet outside of school premises and are reintroducing Fukushima rice to school lunches. As the government urges people to return to their homes in the evacuated zones, the decontamination efforts have failed to deliver the expected results.
Reducing the medical effects of the Fukushima nuclear disaster to a statistical problem by stating that "no discernible increased incidence of radiation-related health effects are expected among exposed members" is cynical and dismisses the individual stories of suffering of thousands of families. Predictions can only be as good as the presumptions and data they are based on, and studies designed to obscure measurable effects in averages serve only the interest of the nuclear industry. Instead, UNSCEAR should utilize neutral sets of data, acknowledge and name inherent uncertainties in dose estimates, consider the increased vulnerability of certain population groups, cite the full range of possible exposure rates, analyze effects of radiation on the non-human biota and incorporate the latest information about ongoing radioactive emissions in their report. This would allow UNSCEAR to present a realistic picture of the effects people can expect from the radioactive fallout in the coming decades, including predictions about thyroid cancer, leukemia, solid tumors, non-cancer diseases and genetic defects, all of which have been found in the populations affected by the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe.
The events in Fukushima were not the worst-case scenario, but could have turned for the worse if the wind had blown in a different direction. This is an important factor to consider for future nuclear safety guidelines and recommendations. It is critical that physicians and medical personnel understand the true consequences of radiation exposure so that proper monitoring is conducted in all those who were exposed to radioactive fallout. Ultimately, what is at stake is not only the principle of independent scientific research, which does not bow to the influence of powerful lobby-groups, but also the universal right of every human being to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being. This should be the guiding principle in evaluating the health effects of the nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima.
Mr. Anand Grover, Esq.
Mr. Anand Grover, appointed by UN Human Right Council at its eighth session in June 2008, is the UN Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. The position is honorary and he is not a staff of the United Nations nor paid for his work. He is also a practicing attorney in the Bombay High Court and the Supreme Court of India.
From November 15 to 26, 2012, Mr. Grover was on a country mission to Japan to conduct an independent investigation on issues related to the enjoyment of the right to health, including availability, accessibility, acceptability and quality of health services, goods and facilities. Additional aspects investigated are, the underlying determinants of health in Japan within the context of the Great East Japan Earthquake, the events leading to it (including emergency response, recovery and mitigation with a particular focus on challenges and actions taken in response to them), as well as lessons learned and good practices. The mission involved meetings with Japanese government officials, non-governmental organizations, and local citizens affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and the nuclear disaster in Fukushima. Mr. Grover’s report on his findings and recommendations was submitted to the Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in May 2013, and will be reported to the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly in New York on October 25, 2013.
Dr. John Rachow, Ph.D., M.D.
Dr. Rachow is a practicing physician, Board Member & Chair of the Radiation and Health Committee, and Past President (2011) of Physicians for Social Responsibility, Washington, DC. He is also an Assistant Clinical Professor of University of Iowa, Department of Medicine, Iowa City, Iowa, USA.
Mari Inoue, Esq., is a practicing lawyer and New York representative of Human Rights Now, Tokyo, Japan.
HUMAN RIGHTS NOW: Human Rights Now (HRN), an international NGO in consultative status with the ECOSOC, is based in Tokyo with several hundreds of members composed of lawyers, scholars, journalists and concerned citizens. In July 2011, on behalf of a coalition of civil society groups in Japan, Human Rights Now requested the Office of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) for a Special Rapporteur to investigate the human rights situation after the disaster. In response to the request, Mr. Anand Grover, the Special Rapporteur on the right to health, visited Japan in November 2012. In December 2012, HRN submitted a joint statement, endorsed by more than 70 civil societies in Japan and worldwide, urging the IAEA and the Japanese government to take a rights-based approach in response to the nuclear disaster based on the preliminary findings and recommendations issued by Mr. Grover in November. To raise awareness of the situation in Fukushima after the nuclear accident, HRN NY has organized human rights seminars and a press conference to inform the international community about the ongoing crisis. (http://hrn.or.jp/eng/)
PHYSICIANS FOR SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY: Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), the U.S. affiliate of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) advocates for sound public health policies regarding exposure to radioactive and other toxic materials. PSR is the medical and public health voice working to prevent the use of and to abolish nuclear weapons, to promote safe, non-nuclear energy, and to slow, stop and reverse global warming and the toxic degradation of the environment. Fukushima presents an immediate challenge to protect those individuals most endangered by exposure to dangerous levels of radioactivity, and to adequately and openly track the health consequences of the ongoing irradiation of populations. PSR was founded in 1961 and was instrumental in achieving the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty that ended the global radioactive contamination produced by atmospheric nuclear bomb testing. PSR shared in the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize awarded to International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), for building public pressure to push their governments to end the nuclear arms race. (http://www.psr.org/)
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