25 years after Chernobyl, Fukushima health effects studied

The sad lessons learned from Fukushima should allow more accurate estimates of the aftermath of nuclear power plant accidents in the past and present.

Twenty-five years after the April 26, 1986 Chernobyl disaster, three scientists who contributed to the first major U.N. report on effects of the Chernobyl accident say that assessing health consequences of the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster will not be impeded by the kind of obstacles present after Chernobyl. Drs. Kirsten B. Moysich and Philip McCarthy of the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, NY, and Dr. Per Hall of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, wrote in an editorial in The Lancet Oncology Online First:

Sadly, the ongoing events in Japan might offer another opportunity to study the cancer consequences of accidents at nuclear power plants. Although Japan is facing many challenges in the aftermath of three simultaneously occurring disasters, the country’s long history in epidemiological research of radiation might place it in a better position to study the consequences of the nuclear power plant accident and to implement research investigations in a shorter timeframe than can other countries with less experience.

In other words, these scientists expect that better access to information about health effects due to the Fukushima tragedy in Japan should make possible more accurate estimates of the aftermath of nuclear power plant accidents in the past and present, as well as provide useful information for public health management of future events. The increased access to information is due to the greater scientific expertise in Japan, as well as the greater economic and political stability, they said.

Unlike the former Soviet Union, Japan is a more open society and did not attempt to hide the radiation release from its citizens. Japan is also a politically and economically stable society. Major challenges in doing valid research after the Chernobyl accident were associated with the political instability after the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1991 and with the scarcity of funding from the new independent countries that were most affected by the accident.

However, in Japan, the political, economical, and scientific environment should allow for comprehensive investigations of the health consequences of a major accident at a nuclear power plant. Findings from such studies should be useful in informing the public about expectations of these health effects, and should guide public health officials in implementing an effective medical response.

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Dr. Moysich and colleagues, who have contributed to numerous scholarly articles on this topic, concluded that the documented cancer consequences of the Chernobyl accident were restricted to thyroid cancer in children and were much lower than first expected.

After the Chernobyl accident, the risk of childhood thyroid cancer increased 3 to 8 times among those with the highest exposure to radiation. This lead to the recommendation of potassium iodide tablet distribution to children and adolescents in the most contaminated areas following a nuclear plant accident. Radioactive iodine, despite having a half-life of just 8 days, can cause damage when it is absorbed into the body through food and stored in the thyroid gland. No chemoprotective interventions are available for radiation exposure to caesium or strontium, which remain toxic for decades. The authors said:

Aggressive efforts will be needed to limit exposure to radioactive iodine and caesium, and to isolate contaminated areas. In particular, children and young adults are at highest risk because of past data showing that exposure at young ages increases the risk of adverse health effects such as thyroid cancer.

The authors discussed the potential harmful effect of radiation on girls in puberty. Evidence from Japanese Life Span Study, which looked at radiation risk factors following the atomic bombs of World War II, suggested that women at highest risk for breast cancer were women who were in puberty at the time of the bombing. The authors indicated that lactating women were also a high risk group, when the likelihood of radionuclide absorption in mammary tissue is high.

A linked Lancet Oncology editorial concluded:

An often overlooked aspect of nuclear disaster is the psychological burden on those affected. In 1991, an International Atomic Energy Agency study concluded that the psychological effects of the Chernobyl disaster were disproportionately large by comparison with the biological risk. According to the U.N. Chernobyl Forum report, the accident’s largest public health effect was on mental health — an effect worsened by poor information about health risks associated with radiation exposure. The long-term consequences of events at Fukushima remain to be seen, but as Japan moves forward, clear and accessible dissemination of information is essential to ensure that adequate safeguards, monitoring, and support are provided in the years ahead.

Bottom line: Scientists studying health consequences of the Fukushima disaster believe they will not be impeded by the same kind of obstacles present after Chernobyl. They hope they will be able not only to assess health effects of the Fukushima nuclear accident but to gain a clearer understanding of what happened at Chernobyl. These views were expressed in an editorial by Dr. Kirsten B. Moysich and Dr. Philip McCarthy, Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, NY, and Dr. Per Hall, Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, in April 2011, in The Lancet Oncology Online First.

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