When Japan’s Fukushima reactor began to experience trouble in the wake of a devastating earthquake and tsunami, the world watched in growing horror as the island nation desperately tried to avoid a nuclear disaster.
Almost from the start, efforts seemed plagued with problems, in a combination of unpreparedness, poor facility maintenance and unavoidable incidents that compounded the problems at Fukushima, creating a growing radiation zone that endangered citizens, livestock and the earth itself. Now, more than two years after the horrific events of March 2011, the nation is still struggling with the fallout: quite literally, in the case of an alarming medical trend emerging among Japanese minors.
Since June of this year, six children who were minors at the time of the Fukushima disaster have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer, which is an unusually high rate, especially when paired with a suspected 10 additional cases. 44 cases in total have been diagnosed since the start of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, though the overall baseline rate of thyroid cancer in Japanese children remains at one to two in a million.
Japanese government officials claim that this uptick in diagnoses cannot be attributed to the Fukushima disaster, arguing that while radiation does build up in the thyroid gland and can cause a cancer risk, it takes several years to manifest. They’re pointing to data from the Chernobyl disaster, where cancer rates didn’t begin to radically spike for approximately five years, to suggest that these cases are unrelated to the nuclear event. This, of course, raises the question of what could be causing the artificially high thyroid cancer rate if it’s not Fukushima.
Some critics argue that the increase in diagnoses can be attributed to the use of a more sensitive testing technique. As is common with the development of new medical testing technologies, the sensitivity of the thyroid cancer screening being used in Japan is much higher than that used in the past. Consequently, it may be catching much more than traditional tests, thus leading to rate inflation that doesn’t reflect the true thyroid cancer rate. These concerns require further investigation, as if they are true, children may be receiving unnecessarily aggressive treatments for benign cellular changes.
If the government is wrong, which many outside critics (as well as Japanese residents themselves) believe, it could be looking at a steady climb in cancer rates, without adequate preparation. It insists that radiation exposure for most of the population was very low, too low to cause significant health risks, and an estimated 90% of radiation-exposed people aren’t eligible for the free lifetime screenings offered by the Tokyo Electric Power Company and the government. This means not only that citizens will be missing out on opportunities for early diagnosis and treatment, but also that the government will lose out on the opportunity for a large study cohort that might provide more insight into cancer rates in the wake of the Fukushima disaster.
The government’s desire to put Fukushima behind it is perhaps not surprising, as the disaster marked a horrible event in the nation’s history, one particularly dark given that this is not the first time Japan has been overshadowed by radiation. In the wake of the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States, the country struggled both with the legacy of radiation and the war itself, and was likewise eager to minimize the public profile of hibakusha, “bomb affected people,” those who developed illnesses as a result of radiation exposure.
In the case of Fukushima, the disaster represents substantial failings on the part of the government as well as TEPCO, and both parties would be happy to see the event taken out of the limelight. A rise in cancer diagnoses would have the opposite effect, especially when these cases involve cancer among children.
Japan’s government must rise to the challenge and make a thorough epidemiological study of the cancer cluster possibly emerging in Fukushima to determine its root causes, find out who else should be considered for cancer screening, and address the issue head-on, rather than hiding from it.
Photo credit: DVIDSHUB.