Is Fear of Radiation More Damaging than Radiation Itself?

More than two and a half years ago, the Fukushima nuclear disaster began to unfold, and the world still watches on with fear and apprehension. Even though a lot of time has passed since then, you still find yourself concerned for your wellbeing, and that of those involved in the disaster, when you hear such reports as one this month that six workers at the plant had been accidentally doused with radioactive water. However, leading wellness experts and health scientists assert that the radiation from Fukushima has had a limited, if at all harmful, impact on your environmental wellness, so why does your fear of all things nuclear persist?


According to David Ropeik, an instructor at the Harvard Extension School and the author of How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts, ‘Our anxiety about nuclear radiation is rooted in our understandable fear of the terrible power of nuclear weapons. But in the 68 years since those weapons were first used in anger, we have learned, from the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki themselves, that ionising radiation — the type created by a nuclear reaction — is not nearly the powerful carcinogen or genetic mutagen that we thought it was.’


Atomic bomb survivors have been tracked by epidemiologists and radiation biologists ever since the end of World War II, comprising of about 112,600 Japanese: 86,611 who had been within 10 kilometres of the centre of the explosions, and 26,000 who were not exposed. Of these people in the exposed population, 10,929 have died of cancer, but only 527 of those deaths were caused by radiation from the atomic bombs. To help you get your head around those numbers, that’s a cancer mortality rate of about 0.6% which is crazy when you consider the entire population was exposed to, in many cases, extremely high levels of radiation.


Ropeik adds, ‘Perhaps most importantly, research on the bomb survivors has found that at lower doses, below 100 millisieverts, radiation causes no detectable elevations in normal rates of illness and disease. (Among several measures of radiation exposure, sieverts reflect the biological effects of radiation.) The vast majority of the doses received by people living near Fukushima or Chernobyl were well below this 100 millisievert threshold. The robust evidence that ionising radiation is a relatively low health risk dramatically contradicts common fears.’


However, while ionising radiation hasn’t, by itself, caused health concerns, the fears that you have of the radiation may do real damage to your wellbeing. The World Health Organisation (WHO) conducted a 20-year review of the Chernobyl disaster, which revealed that the radiation exposure did minimal damage to health compared to the psychological impacts of the disaster. The researchers commented that a principle cause of the population’s debilitating stress was ‘an exaggerated sense of the dangers to health of exposure to radiation.’ So what does that mean for those involved in the Fukushima disaster?


Ropeik notes, ‘Epidemiologists are already seeing the same things in Fukushima, where radiation exposures were far lower than at Chernobyl. Radiation biologists say the increased cancer risk from Fukushima will be so low it won’t change general cancer rates for that area, or Japan generally…Nonetheless, thousands of people are refusing to return to their homes and businesses in evacuated areas, even where dose levels have fallen low enough to declare those areas safe. Levels of stress, anxiety and depression are significantly elevated. One survey found that stress among children in the Fukushima area is double the level of other children in Japan.’ He concludes, ‘Without a much broader and persistent effort by various branches and levels of government to help the public understand the actual biological effects of radiation, we will continue to face the threat of deep historic nuclear fears that simply don’t match the facts.’

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