Experts Warn Radiation Fears Are Diverting Attention From Public Health Threats In Japan

Concerns about radiation leaks from Japan’s nuclear plant, which was damaged in the recent earthquake and tsunami, might be “diverting attention from potentially worse threats to public health … like the cold and disrupted supplies of water,” Reuters reports.  

Japan should concentrate on ensuring access to safe drinking water and sewage disposal in an effort to prevent disease outbreaks, even though the possibility of a cholera or typhoid epidemic appears remote, according to experts. The “radiation emerging from the Fukushima nuclear plant … has preyed on people’s minds, playing on fears of something that cannot be seen, touched and is poorly understood, ” Reuters notes. “Experts say these fears could leave a lasting legacy.”

Nick Pidgeon, a professor of public understanding of risk at Cardiff University, highlighted why people are “disproportionately” concerned about the radiation. “It’s invisible, it’s insidious, its effects are often very difficult to isolate and remain unclear many decades later, and its main risk – cancer – is itself a highly dreaded disease,” he said. “People are getting so concerned about what are at the moment pretty low levels of radiation as far as the general public is concerned. But the real problems … are in dealing with the earthquake and the tsunami,” said Richard Wakeford of the University of Manchester (Kelland, 3/16).

A second Reuters article reports on health conditions of survivors from the small Japanese fishing town of Otsuchi. Survivors have gathered at three emergency shelters in the area, where they are living in sub-zero temperatures without water or electricity and very little food, according to the news service. “We are seeing very small health problems but these can deteriorate. We have been restarting treatment for elderly people who have hypertension, diabetes and cardiovascular problems,” Eric Ouannes, general director for Medecins Sans Frontieres in Japan, said after visiting some shelters (Kim, 3/17).

Meanwhile, workers are continuing to try to gain control over the nuclear plant, Inter Press Service reports. “The level of radiation at the plant surged to 1,000 millisieverts early on Wednesday before coming down to 800-600 millisieverts,” according to IPS (3/16). Experts on PBS’ NewsHour discussed the possible health implications of radiation leaks for people in Japan and around the world (Ifill, 3/16).

At a congressional hearing on Wednesday, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu said the U.S. is trying to deploy a radiation detection system in Japan, Reuters reports. Chu said the Energy Department has sent 1,700 pounds of equipment and 39 staffers to Japan. Equipment to monitor airborne radiation has also been sent, he said (3/16).

International Aid Response Examined

“The images from Japan’s earthquake and tsunami are as staggering as those from the quake 14 months ago in Haiti. Yet relief agencies in the U.S. and elsewhere are responding with far more restraint as they defer decision-making to the Japanese,” the Associated Press/Wall Street Journal reports. So far, American donations are comparable to those given after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, but less than the response to the Haitian earthquake. Some experts believe the gap is due to Americans’ knowledge of Haiti “as one of the world’s poorest countries, while Japan is among the most affluent and renowned for its disaster-preparedness expertise” (3/17).

According to the Wall Street Journal, “Japan also hasn’t been asking for as much aid even though many international groups, including the United Nations, have offered. … Some experts on humanitarian relief believe it may be better for Japan if not too many aid groups get involved. Humanitarian relief such as food and water is almost always needed in major disasters, but many aid groups have come under heavy criticism in recent years for failing to coordinate their activities, getting in the way of governments and saddling nations with unwanted supplies, such as winter coats for tropical climates” (Barta/Esterl, 3/17).

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