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Put children before politics

Almost a year after the crisis at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant following the March 11, earthquake and tsunami, one serious question remains: to what extent have residents in the vicinity of the plant been exposed to radiation?

As recently as January, it was reported that a new condominium had been constructed with materials containing a high concentration of radioactive cesium, affecting those living there. This was the latest piece of evidence testifying to the degree of radioactive contamination caused by the nuclear crisis.

Although the government has been trying to pacify citizens by claiming there is no immediate threat to human health as a result of exposure to radiation, medical experts are deeply concerned about children and their exposure and the potential hazard to their health.

Even though the area contaminated by radioactive fallout from the Fukushima plant is smaller than the region contaminated by the Chernobyl disaster (1986), radiation levels in some places are similar. A medical doctor working in the contaminated area has said the government has been moving much too slowly to cope with the situation. The pace has been compared to that of the government of the former Soviet Union in its dealing with the Chernobyl disaster.

Two chemical elements that could seriously expose children to radiation are iodine-131 and cesium-137. If iodine-131 is taken into the thyroid gland, it remains there for a long time, damaging adjacent tissues through beta decay (by which a beta particle, an electron or a positron, is emitted from an atom). This volatile element can spread quickly to other areas.

And since its half-life (the time it takes for radioactive material to decay by half) is only eight days, it disappears within months, making it difficult to detect unless a medical test is conducted at an early stage of exposure.

The amount of iodine-131 detected in the area within 20 km of the ill-fated nuclear plant reached a maximum 55,000 becquerels per square meter, yet 2,5 million becquerels was detected per kilogram of weeds collected in Iidate Village. Radiation figures in some places are not much different from measurements of contamination near Chernobyl.

The municipal hospital at Minami-Soma, about 30 km from the nuclear plant, measured 100,000 counts per minute on clothing from some patients.

Tomoyoshi Oikawa, a doctor at the hospital, has complained that even though he has time and again talked about the exposure of patients to high-level radiation, most media has not reported his findings.

In Chernobyl, an estimated 6,000 children suffered from thyroid gland cancer. This suggests that, proportionately, it won’t be surprising if several hundred children in Fukushima Prefecture are affected similarly. Although this cancer is curable if treated at an early stage, victims remain subject to the aftereffects of operations or radiation treatments for years to come.

Another source of radiation exposure besides iodine-131 is cesium-137, which, if taken internally, will spread throughout the body, damaging tissue, primarily muscle, through beta decay. Although some scientists dismiss the likelihood of cesium-137 causing cancer, the fact is that little scientific research has been done on the matter.

A Ukrainian researcher is quoted as saying that although he does not know of any increase in the number of cancer patients as a result of the cesium-137 that leaked from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, he doesn’t believe the Soviet Union, which was on the verge of political collapse at the time, made an honest effort to publicize relevant data.

Yury Bandazhevsky, an anatomic pathologist in Belarus, who concluded from research that cesium-137 adversely impacts human blood-forming and immunity functions, was imprisoned, though on a charge unrelated to his work.

Medical checks by the Minami-Soma Municipal Mospital using Whole Body Counters (WBCs) show the seriousness of radiation exposure. Of the 527 children checked in and after September, 268, or 51 percent, were found to have suffered from internal exposure to cesium-137. One doctor at the hospital said some of the children had been eating wild plants picked in the mountains. Evidence of high-level exposure to gamma rays was detected in the clothes of some children, indicating, he said, that their parents were paying little attention to the risks of radiation exposure.

The municipal hospital is capable of examining and treating only 110 children per day due to the small number of WBC machine’s available. Efforts by the hospital staff to purchase more equipment has been hindered by an internal power struggle within the municipal government. Minami-Soma Mayor Katsunobu Sakurai’s call for buying additional machines has met opposition from city office workers who harbor antipathy toward the mayor.

The Fukushima prefectural government is not helping the hospital, either. Even though a large budget has been allocated by the central government to the prefecture to cope with radiation issues, no funds have gone to the Minami-Soma Municipal Hospital for purchasing the WBC devices. This has forced the municipal government to bear the entire cost of examining the children exposed to cesium-137. As it examines more children, it incurs greater costs.

Not only citizens of Minami-Soma but also those from other municipalities in Fukushima Prefecture have expressed a desire to be examined by the WBC machines. In reality, though, only a small number of them have had the chance.

As the prefectural government continues to drag its feet, several municipalities like Fukushima City, Iwaki City and Hirata Village, as well as some private medical institutions, have decided that they can no longer wait and are working to purchase the devices on their own.

It may be wrong to overemphasize the danger of exposure to radiation, but it appears inevitable that at least some children living in the vicinity of the Fukushima nuclear power plant will face health hazards in the future. The risk will only worsen if administrative officials fail to perform their duties or obstruct efforts by hospitals and doctors.

It is imperative that incompetent and dilatory bureaucrats within the prefectural and municipal governments be removed so that a medical system that contributes to the protection of the health of local residents is established. The entire country must support medical services for citizens of Fukushima Prefecture.

Nothing would constitute a more serious “man-made calamity” than destroying the future of children through the egotistic games of grown-ups.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the February issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, social and economic scenes.