On March 1st, the World Health Organization released their public risk estimates relative to the Fukushima accident. The WHO’s concluded that the increased risk of cancer due to F. Daiichi-based exposure is tiny. However, the Japanese government is less than happy with the WHO report. They feel WHO’s results are purely hypothetical and can only increase the wide-spread fear of radiation infecting millions of their people. The WHO replied that their estimates were specific to relative risk and that they were not making predictions of additional future cancer morbidity. But, the largely-antinuclear Japanese Press is presenting the WHO report as just such a prediction. The Japanese criticism of WHO’s radiation risk estimation is (a) surprising considering that radiation is an exceedingly touchy topic in Japan, and (b) there seems to be no prior record of any other governmental body in the world openly disapproving of the risk methodology WHO used. In this writer’s opinion, it’s about time for both. First, Japan’s radiation experts have remained silent since the F. Daiichi accident. Their voices need to be heard. Second, the WHO methodology is inherently flawed and needs to be discontinued because it is deeply confusing, easily twisted into fear-mongering rhetoric and flat-out wrong!
First, let’s look at the Tokyo experts most-affected by the WHO report. The Environmental Ministry says the risk estimates were intentionally exaggerated and do not reflect “reality”. On official said “Their calculations were made based on the assumption that people continued living inside the evacuation zone and ate banned food. But there are no such people.” What? The estimates are based on factors that did not actually exist? What possessed WHO to make THAT assumption? In addition, Makoto Akashi of the National Institute of Radiological Sciences said, “It’s utterly hypothetical. It can increase peoples’ fears as they just see the findings. I’m not seeking underestimation, but I’m very angry at seeing the (WHO) raising fears by overestimating data.” To make matters worse, WHO ignored a recent report by Japan’s National Institute of Radiological Sciences’ which said no Fukushima residents were exposed to more than 46 millisieverts, and the overwhelming majority below 20 mSv. NIRS concluded that since the lowest exposure level believed to cause negative health effects is 100mSv, there will be no Fukushima cancer increases. See why the Tokyo government is upset?
Local officials near Fukushima Daiichi are even more distraught. Norio Kanno, an official at Iitate Village, harshly attacked WHO for exaggerating the cancer risk when he said, “I’m enraged!” He called the WHO estimates “totally hypothetical”. Kanno pointed to the large number of Fukushima residents who mortally dread radiation and won’t even let their children play outside for fear that they might be exposed to radiation. He believes WHO generated cancer risk estimates without accounting for the kind of psychological harm they might produce in those already terrified by the Fukushima accident. One Fukushima researcher reported, “We are starting to see more cases of suicide, depression, alcoholism, gambling and domestic violence across the area. From the point of view of mental health, this is a very critical time.” WHO has done nothing but add to this social chaos.
How can the WHO be increasing fear in the Japanese people? Asia’s Press used the report to make scary headlines and fear-twisted journalism. Here’s a sampling of some of the news reports that were generated… “Fukushima residents at a higher risk of cancer”… “Risk of thyroid cancer up 70% for those who lived in the shadow of Fukushima”…“Infants in Japan’s Fukushima prefecture are at greater risk of developing cancer after the March 2011 accident”… “People in the area worst affected by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident two years ago have a higher risk of developing certain cancers”…and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. For the millions in Japan who mortally fear radiation exposure, no matter how miniscule, these articles and intensifying their pre-existent fears.
Now, here’s what might be the most disturbing problem with the WHO report. In January, another prestigious United Nation’s body, the Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), released its most recent understanding of the biological effects of low level radiation exposure. UNSCEAR said there is no evidence of negative health impacts with exposures below 100 millisieverts, and that is the dose which should be used as a threshold of harm. If a linear model is to be used, it should begin at 100mSV…not at zero. No resident of Fukushima Prefecture came close to a 100 mSv dose. The highest “estimated” by WHO was 46 mSv (the same as Japan’s NIRS), which is below half of the UNSCEAR threshold. Why WHO overlooked the UNSCEAR findings is unknown, but it should serve as an embarrassment them.
The bottom-line scientific problem is WHO using the Linear/No Threshold assumption with radiation exposure to create its risk estimates. LNT is merely an assumption. There was no human data behind it when it was created more than fifty years ago, and there has been no conclusive evidence to support it since. LNT basically assumes that even the tiniest radiation exposure runs the miniscule risk of contracting cancer at some point later in life. In Japan, even the most miniscule estimate of risk is unacceptable to the nation’s radiophobic millions. In contradiction to LNT, a small mountain of conclusive evidence uncovered over the past 30+ years shows that LNT is totally wrong with respect to low-level exposures. Much of this evidence has come from Japanese researchers, beginning with a Tokyo Metropolitan Hospitals report in 1993. These studies show that low-level exposures produce no negative health effects, and suggest that low level exposure increases longevity, lowers cancer incidence, improves cellular healing and DNA repair. The WHO report ignores all of this evidence and ruthlessly clings to LNT for its “risk estimates”. Give the world a break! Give the phobic millions in Japan a break!
The umbrage taken by the Japanese government with respect to the WHO report is fully justified. Hopefully, other governmental bodies around the world will join with them and make this a watershed moment in history: when an incorrect, bureaucratically-entrenched assumption, which has generated unnecessary fear for decades, is rejected and replaced with a model that reflects the real world.