Exactly two years after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, perhaps the most crucial issue to be addressed is how many people were harmed by radioactive emissions.
The full tally won’t be known for years, after many scientific studies. But some have rushed to judgment, proclaiming exposures were so small that there will be virtually no harm from Fukushima fallout.
This knee-jerk reaction after a meltdown is nothing new. Nearly 12 years after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, there were no journal articles examining changes in local cancer rates. But 31 articles in publications like the Journal of Trauma and Stress and Psychosomatic Medicine had already explored psychological consequences.
Eventually, the first articles on cancer cases showed that in the five years after the accident, there was a whopping 64% increase in the cancer cases within 10 miles of Three Mile Island. But the writers, from Columbia University, concluded radiation could not account for this rise, suggesting stress be considered instead. While this was later contested by researchers from the University of North Carolina, many officials still subscribe to the slogan “nobody died at Three Mile Island.”
In 1986, after the Chernobyl catastrophe, officials in the Soviet Union and elsewhere raced to play damage control. The Soviet government admitted 31 rescue workers had died soon after absorbing huge radiation doses extinguishing the fire and trying to bury the red-hot reactor. For years, 31 was often cited as the “total” deaths from Chernobyl. Journal articles on disease and death rates near Chernobyl were slow and limited. The first articles were on rising numbers of local children with thyroid cancer – a very rare condition.
Finally, 20 years after the meltdown, a conference of the World Health Organization, International Atomic Energy Agency, and other groups admitted to 9,000 cancers worldwide from Chernobyl. But this was a tiny fraction of what others were finding. A 2009 New York Academy of Sciences book estimated 985,000 deaths (and rising) worldwide from Chernobyl fallout. The team, led by Alexey Yablokov, examined 5,000 articles and reports, most in Slavic language never before available to researchers.
Fukushima was next. While estimates of releases remain variable and inexact, nobody disputes that Fukushima was the worst or second-worst meltdown in history. But predictably, nuclear proponents raced to assure the public that little or no harm would ensue.
First to cover up and minimize damage was the Japanese government and nuclear industry. John Boice of Vanderbilt University went a step further, declaring “there is no opportunity to conduct epidemiologic studies that have any chance of detecting excess cancer risk. The doses are just too low.” At a public hearing in Alabama in December, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission official Victor McCree stated “there was no significant exposure to radiation from the accident at Fukushima Daiichi.” Just days ago, a World Health Organization report concluded there would be no measurable increase in cancer rates from Fukushima – other than a very slight rise in exposed children living closest to the site.
Others have made estimates of the eventual toll from Fukushima. Welsh physicist Christopher Busby projects 417,000 additional cancers just within 125 miles of the plant. American engineer Arnold Gundersen calculates that the meltdown will cause 1 million cancer deaths.
Internist-toxicologist Janette Sherman and I are determined to make public any data on changes in health, as quickly as possible. In the December 2011 International Journal of Health Services, we documented a “bump” in U.S. deaths in the 3-4 months after Fukushima, especially among infants – the same “bump” after Chernobyl. Our recent study in the Open Journal of Pediatrics showed rising numbers of infants born with an under-active thyroid gland – which is highly sensitive to radiation – on the West Coast, where Fukushima fallout was greatest.
It is crucial that researchers don’t wait years before analyzing and presenting data, even though the amount of available information is still modest. To remain silent while allowing the “no harm” mantra to spread would repeat the experiences after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and allow perpetration of the myth that meltdowns are harmless. Researchers must be vigilant in pursuing an understanding of what Fukushima did to people – so that all-too-common meltdown will be a thing of the past.
Joseph J. Mangano MPH MBA is Executive Director of the Radiation and Public Health Project.
Bolivia will again belong to the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs after its bid to rejoin with a reservation that it does not accept the treaty’s requirement that “coca leaf chewing must be banned” was successful Friday. Opponents needed one-third of the 184 signatory countries to object, but fell far, far short despite objections by the US and the International Narcotics Control Board.
Bolivian president Evo Morales celebrated the decision as a moral victory for his people and the centuries’ old culture based on the ‘acullicu’. “It’s not easy to change international legislation, particularly when 25 years ago they had decided to eliminate the coca leaf and with it, our culture”, said Morales who added that the coca leaf has been “criminalized, demonized, condemned world wide. Consumers have been described as narcotics-dependents and farmers narcotics traders”.
Of the 61 countries needed to veto the initiative only 15 turned out led by the US and UK, plus other European countries, Canada, Japan and Mexico.
“The objecting countries’ emphasis on procedural arguments is hypocritical. In the end this is not about the legitimacy of the procedure Bolivia has used, it is not even really about coca chewing,” according to Martin Jelsma, coordinator of the Transnational Institute’s Drugs and Democracy program. “What this really is about is the fear to acknowledge that the current treaty framework is inconsistent, out-of-date, and needs reform.”
The Institute noted that Bolivia’s success can be an example for other regional countries where traditional use of the coca leaf is permitted, including Argentina, Colombia, and Peru, to challenge the Single Convention on coca. It also called for the World Health Organization to undertake a review of coca’s classification as a Schedule I drug under the Convention.
“Those who would desperately try to safeguard the global drug control system by making it immune to any type of modernization are fighting a losing battle,” according to John Walsh, director of the Washington Office on Latin America drug policy program.
“Far from undermining the system, Bolivia has given the world a promising example that it is possible to correct historic errors and to adapt old drug control dogmas to today’s new realities.”
“I can’t stress enough how big this is. Once again, the United States snapped its fingers and told the rest of the world to get in line and oppose Bolivia’s move. But this time, while the UK joined them, most of the rest of the world just said “no, thanks.”
However it’s a largely symbolic victory, as this UN commission lacks the power to regulate coca leaf consumption in Bolivia in the first place. But the UN declaration has been welcomed by the Bolivian government, which is planning to invite the country’s coca growers to massive coca-chewing events in the cities of La Paz and Cochabamba.
The coca leaf is the base material for cocaine. But for centuries indigenous people in the Andean mountains have chewed this leaf in its natural form to gain energy and decrease hunger. Some groups in the region also consider the coca leaf to be a sacred plant, and use it regularly for social and religious rituals.
Evo Morales, who is himself a former coca grower, has championed the decriminalization of the leaf since he came into office in 2006, chewing coca in international forums, praising its nutritional qualities, and even asking Sean Penn to be his global ambassador for the coca leaf. A special clause in the 2009 Bolivian constitution refers to the matter.
But the UN’s decision to tolerate coca leaf chewing in Bolivia was not well taken by US diplomats, who claim that most of Bolivia’s coca crops are being used for cocaine production, and not for traditional chewing.
“We oppose Bolivia’s reservation and continue to believe it will lead to a greater supply of cocaine,” a senior US State Department official was quoted.
”While we recognize Bolivia’s capacity and willingness to undertake some successful counter-narcotics activities, especially in terms of coca eradication, we estimate that much of the coca legally grown in Bolivia is sold to drug traffickers, leading to the conclusion that social control of coca (allowing some legal growing) is not achieving the desired results,” the official said in a statement.
Most member states did not object to Bolivia’s readmission into the antinarcotics group or to the new statute which says that chewing, and growing the coca leaf, is fine within Bolivia. The non-objectors included Colombia and Peru which are the world’s two biggest cocaine producers and also have very large crops of the coca leaf.
Some diplomatic representatives in La Paz had a hard time explaining why the vote of the fifteen on the US initiative. British ambassador Ross Denny said the decision was a bad example since it opens the door for other countries to present objections and thus weakening the UN Narcotics Convention. He added that the UK fears that the return of Bolivia on that condition could mean a greater production of coca leaves that end up with the narcotics trade.
But President Morales made a passionate defence of the ‘acullicu’ and the Andes highlands culture of chewing coca leaves and mentioned Harvard University and the World Health Organization papers supporting such consumption. “It’s good for human health and benefits those suffering from diabetes.
The official re-entry of Bolivia to the convention is scheduled for February 10 and is a milestone in the Bolivian government campaign to defend the ‘acullicu’ which has seen President Morales and his Foreign minister David Choquehuanca, both indigenous Aymaras, lobby around the world in support of the coca leaf chewing tradition.
- Bolivia slams US over ‘irrefutable evidence’ of meddling (alethonews.wordpress.com)
US and UK weapons ammunition were linked to heart defects, brain dysfunctions and malformed limbs, according to a recent study. The report revealed a shocking rise in birth defects in Iraqi children conceived after the US invasion.
Titled ‘Metal Contamination and the Epidemic of Congenital Birth Defects in Iraqi Cities,’ the study was published by the Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology. It revealed a connection between military activity in the country and increased numbers of birth defects and miscarriages.
The report, which can be found here, also contains graphic images of Iraqi children born with birth defects. (The images were not published on RT due to their disturbing content.) It documents 56 families in Fallujah, which was invaded by US troops in 2004, and examines births in Basrah in southern Iraq, which was attacked by British forces in 2003.
The study concluded that US and UK ammunition is responsible for high rates of miscarriages, toxic levels of lead and mercury contamination and spiraling numbers of birth defects, which ranged from congenital heart defects to brain dysfunctions and malformed limbs.
Fallujah, around 40 miles west of Baghdad, was at the epicenter of these various health risks. The city was first invaded by US Marines in the spring of 2004, and then again 7 months later. Some of the heaviest artillery in the US arsenal was deployed during the attack, including phosphorus shells.
Between 2007 and 2010 in Fallujah, more than half of all babies surveyed were born with birth defects. Before the war, this figure was around one in 10. Also, over 45 percent of all pregnancies surveyed ended in miscarriage in 2005 and 2006, compared to only 10 percent before the invasion.
In Basrah’s Maternity Hospital, more than 20 babies out of 1,000 were born with defects in 2003, 17 times higher than the figure recorded in the previous decade.
Overall, the study found that the number of babies in the region born with birth defects increased by more than 60 percent (37 out of every 1,000 are now born with defects) in the past seven years. This rise was linked to an increased exposure to metals released by the bombs and bullets used over the past decade.
Hair samples of the population of Fallujah revealed levels of lead in children with birth defects five times higher than in other children, and mercury levels six times higher. Basrah children with birth defects had three times more lead in their teeth than children living in areas not struck by the artillery.
The study found a “footprint of metal in the population,” Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, one of the lead authors of the report said. Savabieasfahani is an environmental toxicologist at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health.
“In utero exposure to pollutants can drastically change the outcome of an otherwise normal pregnancy. The metal levels we see in the Fallujah children with birth defects clearly indicates that metals were involved in manifestation of birth defects in these children,” she said.
The study’s preliminary findings, released in 2010, led to an in-depth inquiry on Fallujah by the World Health Organization (WHO), the results of which will be released next month. The inquiry is expected to show an increase in birth defects following the Iraq War.
According to the WHO, a pregnant woman can be exposed to lead or mercury through the air, water and soil. The woman can then pass the exposure to her unborn child through her bones, and high levels of toxins can damage kidneys and brains, and cause blindness, seizures, muteness, lack of coordination and even death.
US and UK ‘unaware’ of rise in birth defects
US Defense Department responded to the report by claiming that there are no official reports indicating a connection between military action and birth defects in Iraq.
“We are not aware of any official reports indicating an increase in birth defects in Al Basrah or Fallujah that may be related to exposure to the metals contained in munitions used by the US or coalition partners,” a US Defense Department spokesperson told the Independent. “We always take very seriously public health concerns about any population now living in a combat theatre. Unexploded ordnance, including improvised explosive devises, are a recognized hazard.”
An UK government spokesperson also said there was no “reliable scientific or medical evidence to confirm a link between conventional ammunition and birth defects in Basrah. All ammunition used by UK armed forces falls within international humanitarian law and is consistent with the Geneva Convention.”
A pair of fish captured near Japan’s crippled Fukushima nuclear plant have shown to be carrying record levels of radiation. The pair of greenlings are contaminated with 258 times the level government deems safe for consumption.
The fish, which were captured just 12 miles from the nuclear plant, registered 25,800 becquerels of caesium per kilo, according to Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO).
TEPCO says the high levels may be due to the fish feeding in radioactive hotspots. The company plans on capturing and testing more of the fish, as well as their feed, and the seabed soil to determine the exact cause of the high radiation.
The findings were surprising for officials, who had previously seen much lower levels of radiation in contaminated fish.
Fishermen been allowed to cast their reels in the nearby waters on an experimental basis since June – but only in areas more than 31 miles from the plant.
Previously, the highest recorded radiation seen in the captured wildlife was 18,700 becquerels per kilo in cherry salmons, according to the Japanese Fisheries Agency.
The radiation was caused by a meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima power plant after it was damaged by an earthquake and tsunami in March 2011.
The disaster was so intense that contaminated fish were caught all the way across the Pacific Ocean, on the California coast.
But it’s not only aquatic life that is suffering from side effects of the leaked radiation.
According to researchers, the radiation has caused mutations in some butterflies, giving them dented eyes, malformed legs and antennae, and stunted wings.
The results show the butterflies were deteriorating both physically and genetically.
But the harmful risks don’t stop with butterflies. The radioactivity which seeped into the region’s air and water has left humans facing potentially life threatening health issues.
Over a third of Fukushima children are at risk of developing cancer, according to the Sixth Report of Fukushima Prefecture Health Management Survey.
The report shows that nearly 36 per cent of children in the Fukushima Prefecture have abnormal thyroid growths which pose a risk of becoming cancerous.
The World Health Organization warns that young people are particularly prone to radiation poisoning in the thyroid gland. Infants are most at risk because their cells divide at a higher rate.
- Chernobyl Heart: The Future For Japan’s Children… (genuinewitty.com)
On Thursday, June 21, Israeli forces confiscated a water tank from a Bedouin Palestinian family in the Jordan Valley, leaving them with no access to water. Three Swedish women were arrested for standing in solidarity with Palestinian women and children who peacefully protested by standing in between the Israeli military and the water tank at risk of theft.
Israeli soldiers deal violently with a Palestinian woman peacefully protesting the theft of her water tank
The Jordan valley is a fertile area ideal for agricultural production. When Israel took control of the West Bank, it immediately took hold of water resources and began to target Palestinian communities and empty them from the Jordan Valley. The villages left are isolated from each other not only by distance but by Israeli checkpoints, closed military zones, and other restrictions on movement. The Israeli military performs military training in proximity to many communities, putting them at constant risk.
The illegal occupation of water resources has made water access an urgent problem. The United Nations declares water a basic human right. The World Health Organization has declared that each individual needs access to 100 litres of water per day, but Palestinians use on average between 50 to 70 litres per day. Many Palestinians in the Jordan Valley however, receive as little as 10-20 litres per day. This is a figure lower than the absolute minimum daily consumption required to avoid ‘mass health epidemics.’ Families in the Jordan Valley are forced to buy water at incredibly inflated prices. Some households spend 40-50% of their income to buy water from Israeli companies.
“When we came to the Bedouin camp, children were crying and there were a lot of soldiers trying to drag them away from the tractor that they tried to block. There were no men, only women and children, and around 60 soldiers and policemen. The Bedouin men were scared to show any resistance because of the risk of administrative detention,” says Rosa Andersson, one of the women who was later arrested.
The Swedish women were released after 30 hours of arrest and they are now prohibited from being in the West Bank. No one, Palestinian or International, showed any violence. The Palestinian family dependent on the confiscated water tank now has no access to water as the driest season of the year has just begun.
- 18 year old shepherd shot by Israeli soldiers in Jordan Valley (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Palestinian farmland exploited for Israeli military exercises (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- The Forcible Transfer of the Palestinian People from the Jordan Valley (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Israeli Forces Destroy Tents, Shacks in Jordan Valley (occupiedpalestine.wordpress.com)
- Susiya: Another Casualty of Israeli Occupation? (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Bedouin Community Demolished, Thirty People Displaced (altahrir.wordpress.com)
- Israelis Stop Palestinians from Getting Drinking Water (altahrir.wordpress.com)
- IOA serves demolition notices in occupied Jerusalem, Jordan Valley (occupiedpalestine.wordpress.com)
BETHLEHEM – The World Health Organization on Thursday said the closure of Gaza compromises the right to health and called on Israel to lift the blockade.
The health system in Gaza cannot function effectively under Israel’s blockade, which entered its sixth year on Thursday, a WHO report said.
During Israel’s 3-week offensive on the Gaza Strip in December 2008, 15 out of 27 hospitals were damaged as well as 43 clinics.
The Erez checkpoint, the main humanitarian access route for the critically ill, closes daily at 2:30 p.m. and all weekend. Outside opening hours, access requires lengthy coordination and can delay emergency treatment by at least two hours.
Gaza has run out of 42 percent of essential medicines, affecting oncology treatment, surgeries and dialysis. Israel does not allow the Health Ministry in Gaza to send medical equipment for repair.
Drug and fuel shortages have increased the need for referrals outside Gaza, funded by the Palestinian Ministry of Health.
“The 5 most frequent reasons for referrals are for cardiovascular, oncology, ophthalmology, orthopedics, or neurosurgery treatment,” WHO says.
Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem are the main specialized centers, but Israel has denied permits to nearly 12,000 patients, or their requests were delayed past their hospital appointment date.
“In the past two years, 618 patients were called for interrogation by Israeli security after applying for a permit,” WHO says.
The main Palestinian teaching hospitals are in East Jerusalem, but medics from Gaza are often denied permits to attend training courses.
- Gaza water too contaminated to drink, say charities (altahrir.wordpress.com)
- Israeli violations of international law (24 – 30 May 2012) (occupiedpalestine.wordpress.com)
Are you wondering about the disconcerting contradictions in the nuclear news in recent weeks?
Following the release of a May 2012 report, newspapers around the world posted headlines announcing that the World Health Organization concludes that Fukushima radiation emissions pose minimal health risk. Based on an assessment of reported emissions of radioiodine and cesium up through September 2011, Japan’s nuclear meltdown poses no serious cancer risk, except for localized exposures around Fukushima prefecture, which may result in increased risk of thyroid cancer.
In the same week, Japanese press reported the alarming news that TEPCO’s assessments of total radioiodine releases were some 1.6 times greater than the Japanese Government’s assessment while, on the same day, the Japanese government issued a reassuring statement that “while gross releases of iodine-131 and cesium-137 are actually far greater than originally estimated, the public can rest assured, as releases to the sea have not resulted in contamination beyond the plant’s immediate area because the mixing power of ocean currents has dispersed the substances beyond the limits of detection in seawater samples”
Meanwhile, the US press reported findings from a study published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences demonstrating that by August 2011, cesium-134 and cesium-137 from Fukushima was present in the tissue of Pacific blue fin tuna, as evidenced samples taken off the coast of San Diego, in Southern California. In the media storm that followed this report, government experts with the US Food and Drug Administration proclaimed no need for public panic, as radiation levels were detectable but simply too low to be hazardous and independent scientists explained why the presence, even at small levels, was so alarming and noted the need for additional monitoring.
As has been the norm in this most recent nuclear disaster, contradictory information abounds, with alarming news countered or contradicted by reassurances that muddy the water, yet achieve the goal of containing and controlling an impotent public.
We have been here before, in a world blanketed with nuclear fallout, where massive amounts of iodine, cesium, strontium and other radioactive isotopes moved through the marine and terrestrial food chain and the human body, in well-documented ways, with degenerative and at times deadly outcomes. Yet, for many reasons, while the environmental and biomedical trajectory of such exposures are well documented, the human experience and associated public health risks are largely suppressed, classified, or simply and persistently denied.
Sometimes clarity is best achieved by stepping back, taking pause, and considering the historical antecedents and experiences that have brought us to these chaotic times. A new documentary film by Adam Horowitz offers an opportunity to do just that.
Premiering June 2, at 6:30 pm at the Lincoln Center in New York City, Nuclear Savage: The Islands of Secret Project 4.1 is a poignant, provocative, and deeply troubling look at lingering and lasting effects of nuclear disaster and the human consequences of US government efforts to define, contain, and control public awareness and concern. Nuclear Savage recounts the experiences of the Marshallese nation in the years following World War II, as they played host to the US’s Pacific Proving Grounds and served as human subjects in the classified, abusive pseudoscience that characterized the US government medical response to civilian exposures from the 1954 Bravo Test, the largest and dirtiest hydrogen bomb detonated by the United States. Detonated in the populated nation of the Marshall Islands.
Here is the story: Following World War II, the Marshall Islands became part of the Trusteeship of the Pacific, and in 1946 after the detonation of two atomic bombs in the Bikini lagoon, the United States was given the authority to administer the islands as a Strategic Trusteeship. The terms of this agreement included the US obligation to “Protect the inhabitants against the loss of their lands and resources” and “Protect the health of the inhabitants of the Trust Territory.”
Between 1946 and 1958 the United States tested 66 nuclear weapons on or near Bikini and Enewetok atolls, atomizing entire islands and, according to records declassified in 1994, blanketing the entire Marshallese nation with measurable levels of radioactive fallout from 20 of these tests. To consider the gravity of this history: the total explosive yield of nuclear militarism in the Marshall Islands was 93 times that of all US atmospheric tests in Nevada, and more than 7,000 Hiroshima bombs. Hydrogen bomb tests were especially destructive, generating intense fallout containing an array of isotopes, including radioactive iodine, which concentrates in the thyroid and can cause both cancer and other medical conditions.
All told, by US estimates, some 6.3 BILLION curies of radioactive Iodine‐131 were released to the atmosphere as a result of the nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands: 42 times greater than the 150 million curies released as a result of the testing in Nevada, 150 times greater than the 40 million curies released as a result of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. And, while comparison to the ongoing Fukushima meltdown is difficult as emissions continue, estimates to date have ranged from 2.4 to 24 million curies. Simply put, radioactive contamination in the Marshall Islands was, and is, immense.
Radioactive fallout from the 1954 Bravo Test not only blanketed a populated nation, but also severely harmed the 23 Japanese crew members of Daigo Fukuryu Maru (No. 5 Lucky Dragon) who were in Marshallese waters harvesting a school of tuna when fallout blanketed their vessel. The US provided antibiotics to treating doctors at the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission in Japan. One of the crew members, Kuboyama Aikichi, died a few weeks later. In the Marshall Islands, residents of Rongelap and Rongerik Atolls who were evacuated in earlier weapons test but not informed nor moved before this largest of all detonations, experienced near fatal exposures.
News of the disastrous exposure of Japanese fishermen and Marshallese island residents fueled international outrage, prompting demands in the United Nations for a nuclear weapons test ban, a series of pacifying news releases from the US about the rapid return to health of exposed civilians.
What was not reported to an interested world public, is the news that the heavily exposed people of Rongelap, once evacuated, were immediately enrolled as human subjects in a top-secret study, Project 4.1, which documented the array of health outcomes from their acute exposures, but did not treat the pain or discomfort of radiation burns, nor utilize antibiotics to offset any potential infection.
Nor did the US make public the full array of findings from their extensive documentation of the character and extent of radioactive fallout during the 1954 and other nuclear weapons tests, which demonstrated the deposition, movement, and accumulation of radioisotopes in the marine and terrestrial environment of Rongelap and other northern atolls.
In 1957, the people of Rongelap were returned to their homelands with great fanfare, moving into newly built homes on islands still dangerously contaminated from prior nuclear weapons tests and clearly vulnerable to the fallout from the 33 bombs detonated in 1958. This repatriation of the Rongelap community was both planned and celebrated by scientists and officials at the US Department of Defense and the Atomic Energy Commission, who saw a significant opportunity to place a human population in a controlled setting to document how radiation moves through the food chain and human body. Annually, and then as the years progressed and degenerative health symptoms increased, biannually, the US medical teams visited by ship to examine, with x-ray, photos, blood, urine and tissue samples, the relative health of the community.
It is this story of human subject experimentation with unwitting subjects that forms the core of the Nuclear Savage film, illustrating both the abusive disregard and human consequences of experiments that violate US law, the Nuremburg Code, and Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which states that “no one shall be subject without his free consent to medical or scientific experimentation.”
Research conducted for the Marshall Islands Nuclear Claims Tribunal and recently submitted to a UN Special Rapporteur on toxics and human rights adds more detail to narrative played out in Horowitz’s Nuclear Savage film.
The long term study of the human health effects of exposure to fallout and remaining nuclear waste in the Marshallese environment extended over four decades with a total of 72 research excursions to the Marshall Islands involving Marshallese citizens from Rongelap, Utrik, Likiep, Enewetak and Majuro Atolls. Some 539 men, women, and children were subject to studies documenting and monitoring the varied late effects of radiation. In addition to the purposeful exposure of humans to the toxic and radioactive waste from nuclear weapons, some Marshallese received radioisotope injections, underwent experimental surgery, and were subject to other procedures in experiments addressing scientific questions which, at times, had little or no relevance to medical treatment needs and in some instances involved procedures that were detrimental to their health. The United States Department of Energy acknowledged in 1994 administration of Cr-51 and tritiated water, and in at least three instances, Cr-51 was injected in three young women of child-bearing age. A 2004 review of declassified research proposals, exam reports, and published articles in support of a Marshall Islands Nuclear Claims Tribunal proceeding found that a broader array of radioisotopes were used — radioactive iodine, iron, zinc, carbon-14 — for a wide array of experiments including research demonstrating the linkages between radiation exposure, metabolic disorders, and the onset of type-2 diabetes.
Arguably, while these experiences were abusive, a broader public health interest was being served, as the results of such science could potentially influence government policy and actions to protect humanity from the adverse health outcomes of nuclear fallout. And indeed, significant scientific knowledge was accumulated. However, the bulk of these findings demonstrated varied degenerative health effects resulting from chronic exposure to low-level radiation in the environment, findings which threatened political (nuclear proliferation) and economic (nuclear energy) agendas. Such findings were buried in the classified files.
For example, the presence and bioaccumulation of radioiron (Fe-55) in fallout from the 1958 detonations of nuclear bombs was documented in terrestrial and marine environments, including lagoon sediments, coral reefs, and reef fish, with alarming levels in goat fish liver, but this knowledge was not shared with the larger scientific world until 1972, nor shared with Marshallese until the declassification process supporting an Advisory Commission on Human Radiation investigation forced bilateral disclosure to the Marshall Islands Government in the 1990s. The movement of cesium through the soils, and bioaccumulation in coconut crabs, trees, and fruit – primary sources of food and liquid in the Marshallese diet — was also documented, with restrictions on the consumption of coconut crab periodically issued, without explanation. The movement through the food chain, bioaccumulation, and biological behavior of radioiodine in the human body was documented, and when thyroid nodules, cancers, and disease resulted, these conditions were studied and treated through various experimental means, though the relationship between nuclear weapons testing, fallout, contamination of the environment, and human subsistence in that environment was not explained until decades had passed.
In short, a wide array of other degenerative health outcomes were documented, including changes in red blood cell production and subsequent anemia, metabolic and related disorders; immune system vulnerabilities; muscoskeletal degeneration; cataracts; cancers and leukemia; miscarriages, congenital defects, and infertility…
However, when Marshallese residents suggested to US scientists that these and other unusual health problems were linked to the environmental contamination from nuclear fallout, their concerns were repeatedly and, because of the classified nature of the science, easily dismissed then. And, because time and the US power over the radiation health effects narrative is so immense and entrenched, they continue to be dismissed now.
The experiences of the Marshallese are particularly relevant to a world still coming to terms with the ulcerating disaster that is Fukushima, a point that is not lost to the members of United Nations Human Rights Council, which has been engaged in an effort over the past number of years to explore the varied means by which humans are unable to enjoy their right to a healthy environment, including the human rights abuses associated with movement and dumping of toxic and dangerous products and wastes.
Mr. Calin Georgescu (Romania), the UN Special Rapporteur for toxics and human rights, has a mandate that includes, among other directives, a country-specific mission to investigate these concerns in the Marshall Islands, especially the human rights consequences of environmental contamination pertains from nuclear weapons testing and other US military activities. In March 2012, Mr. Georgescu visited the RMI, interviewing displaced members of the Bikini, Enewetak, and Rongelap Atolls and other Marshallese citizens whose health and other rights have been severely impacted by living in a contaminated environment.
In April he traveled to Washington DC where he interviewed US government officials, met with independent experts such as myself, and discussed his investigation with the Marshall Islands Ambassador and the RMI UN representative. The Special Rapporteur is now preparing a report that will be presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva during their September 2012 meeting.
Why should a world community care about Cold War nuclear militarism in the Marshall Islands and its varied ulcerating consequences, especially given the many urgent and all to current crises we now face?
The US knowingly and willfully exposed a vulnerable population to toxic radioactive waste as a means to document the movement and degenerative health outcomes of radiation as it moves through the food chain and human body. This human subject experiment extended over the decades with profound consequences for individual subjects and the Marshallese nation as a whole. The Marshallese have become a nation whose experience as nuclear nomads, medical subjects, citizen advocates and innovators is shared by many citizens, communities and indigenous peoples around the world. Their experiences, consequential damages, and their struggles to restore cultural ways of life, quality of life, inter-generational health, and long term sustainability, are especially salient to a nation and to a world concerned with the lingering, persistent, and invasive dangers of a nuclear world.
With both the US and RMI participating in the UN Special Rapporteur’s investigation, there is an obligation for both governments to receive and respond to the report recommendations in a timely fashion, and in subsequent reviews, to demonstrate truly meaningful remediation and reparation for their nuclear legacies in the Marshall Islands.
Furthermore, given the timing of the Human Rights Council review – when the US Presidential election cycle is in full swing – international scrutiny of Marshallese nuclear legacy issues may provide further fuel for the fires now raging over such questions as the effects of chronic exposure to low-level radiation, radiation monitoring, permissibility levels, who pays for the long term public health costs of nuclear energy, and the absurd notion that a tactical strategic nuclear military is a sustainable and viable option.
And, finally, given the historical role of the United Nations in designating the Marshall Islands as a strategic trust, there is a moral and legal obligation for the United Nations community to assist in the remediation, restoration and reparation due to the environment, health, and dignity of the Marshallese nation. International attention to this history and experience is long overdue, and sadly and sorely relevant to a post-Fukushima world.
BARBARA ROSE JOHNSTON is an anthropologist and senior research fellow at the Center for Political Ecology. She is the co-author of The Consequential Dangers of Nuclear War: the Rongelap Report. Her most recent book, Water, Cultural Diversity and Global Environmental Change: Emerging Trends, Sustainable Futures? was copublished by UNESCO/Springer in 2012. She is currently assisting the Special Rapporteur’s efforts to document the human rights consequences of nuclear militarism in the Marshall Islands, and supporting advocacy efforts to bring Marshallese citizens to Geneva so their own voices can be heard. Contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last April 20 the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) published an on-line article entitled “Short-term and Long-term Health Risks of Nuclear-Power-Plant Accidents” by Dr. Eli Glatstein and five other authors. The article was riddled with distortions and misinformation, and overall was very poor research. As the NEJM is a peer reviewed journal and has a significant letters section, I wrote a letter pointing out some of the errors committed by the authors, and a longer piece containing a comprehensive critique.
The NEJM demands that letters to the journal contain material that has not been submitted or published elsewhere, so I had to refrain from submitting my longer piece anywhere until the NEMJ made a decision on my letter. When my letter did not appear after a couple of weeks I inquired, and was told that the article would soon appear in the printed version of the Journal, and that no letters about the article could be published until after the print version came out. The printed version finally appeared on June 16.
However, on July 1,1 was notified by the NEMJ that they would not publish my letter due to “space constraints.” The four letters that they did publish in response to the article were at most only mildly critical and missed the glaring short-comings of the report. In other words, NEMJ sat on my letter and effectively stifled my critique of what can only be described as industry propaganda for almost three months until public attention had moved on to other matters. However, with attention once again focused on the still-out of control Fukushima reactors on the first anniversary of the accident, my expose on how the media and academia have joined together to downplay the dangers of nuclear power is a poignant as ever.
Since the nuclear disaster in Fukushima started in March, the media has been full of misinformation about the dangers posed by the nuclear accidents and the damage caused by past accidents such as those at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. Whether it is Jay Lehr on Fox News1 or George Monbiot on Democracy Now,2 the story line is the same: there were only dozens of deaths from the Chernobyl and none from TMI, the health consequences for the general population are negligible, and all things considered nuclear power is among the safest forms of energy. In some cases the lines are spoken by industry hacks whose true motive is to protect profits, while other times the spokesperson is a global warming tunnel visionist who has lost sight of the fact that we as humans have ingeniously devised a multitude of ways to mess up our planet, including nuclear wars and disasters.
Lehr and Monbiot both made reference to a 2005 report commissioned by the United Nations that included the participation of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the World Health Organization (WHO) and several other UN-linked agencies. Oddly enough, the official press release by the UN announcing publication of the report starts off with the following sentence: “A total of up to four thousand people could eventually die of radiation exposure from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant (NPP) accident nearly 20 years ago, an international team of more than 100 scientists has concluded.”
The reference to 50 deaths pertained to those “directly attributed” to radiation from the disaster. Moreover, this report represents the most conservative of studies from credible sources, with other estimates reaching as high as almost one million Chernobyl deaths.
Lehr works for a public policy think-tank and Monbiot is a journalist. Perhaps we should expect writers from those professions to misleadingly cite sources in order to promote a preset agenda in the hope that no one will check their sources. However, it comes as a shock that medical doctors writing in a prestigious medical journal like the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) would resort to the same practice. On April 20 the NEJM published an article by six doctors entitled: “Short-term and Long-term Health Risks of Nuclear-Power-Plant Accidents.” I will not presume to know what the motives of the authors were or what led them to their erroneous conclusions, but I do feel the need to point out the errors that somehow the NEJM’s peer review process failed to notice.
The authors prominently cite two International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) studies in downplaying the deaths from Chernobyl. The authors state that “[a]lthough the Three Mile Island accident has not yet led to identifiable health effects, the Chernobyl accident resulted in 28 deaths related to radiation exposure in the year after the accident. The long-term effects of the Chernobyl accident are still being characterized, as we discuss in more detail below.” What is the reader intended to take from this statement? First of all, that the TMI accident in its totality did not cause any health effects that have been identified, which is itself a problematic statement. Secondly, that the total deaths from Chernobyl were the 28 in the first year plus whatever would be discussed later in the paper. As it turns out, the rest of the paper only mentions fatalities one other time, and that is that 11 of 13 plant and emergency workers that underwent bone marrow transplants died, and it is not clear whether or not these eleven are included in the above mentioned 28 fatalities. So the reader is left with the impression that the studies that the NEJM authors are citing conclude that the Chernobyl accident in its totality produced only a few dozen fatalities.
However, just as with Lehr and Monbiot, the NEJM authors start with the most conservative studies and then are misleading in their citations. They ignore the existence of high-profile studies that draw very different conclusions, omit the more damning parts of the studies they do cite, and then quote statements that were not intended to portray the totality of the accidents as if they were bottom line conclusions.
For instance, in making the assertion that Chernobyl caused 28 deaths in the first year, the NEJM authors cited an IAEA report that actually said: “The accident caused the deaths within a few days or weeks of 30 ChNPP employees and firemen (including 28 deaths that were due to radiation exposure).”
Notice that the IAEA statement is limited to power plant employees and fireman, whereas the authors imply the entire population. In fact, that IAEA study focused on the “600 emergency workers who were on the site of the Chernobyl power plant during the night of the accident,” and not the exposed population at large or the hundreds of thousands of “liquidators” who worked to contain the plant over the next couple years. Moreover, the IAEA study did not preclude the possibility that some of the liquidators or general public could have been killed due to radiation exposure in the first year, not to mention subsequent years. While the authors only mention a handful of cancer deaths in subsequent years, the second IAEA study acknowledges that among the one million or so most exposed, several thousand Chernobyl-caused cancer deaths would be “very difficult to detect.” The study states the following:
The projections indicate that, among the most exposed populations (liquidators, evacuees and residents of the so-called ‘strict control zones’) total cancer mortality might increase by up to a few per cent owing to Chernobyl related radiation exposure. Such an increase could mean eventually up to several thousand fatal cancers in addition to perhaps one hundred thousand cancer deaths expected in these populations from all other causes. An increase of this magnitude would be very difficult to detect, even with very careful long term epidemiological studies.
Clearly, the content of these two IAEA studies was not accurately reflected in the NEJM article. Moreover, the IAEA is not necessarily the best source of information. It was never intended to protect the public from the dangers of nuclear power plants. That is not part of its mission. The statute of the IAEA states that:
[t]he Agency shall seek to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy to peace, health and prosperity throughout the world. It shall ensure, so far as it is able, that assistance provided by it or at its request or under its supervision or control is not used in such a way as to further any military purpose.
Thus, the IAEA was created to PROMOTE nuclear power (while checking the proliferation of nuclear weapons). It therefore cannot be assumed to be an unbiased or authoritative source of information on the health risks of nuclear power.
The NEJM article is misleading or inaccurate in other instances. For instance, its discussion is weighted too much towards whole body radiation, which is really only relevant to the emergency workers. The article acknowledges that it is not whole body radiation, but rather internal contamination that is “the primary mechanism through which large populations around a reactor accident can be exposed to radiation.” So why emphasize whole body radiation if it is not the mechanism through which populations are endangered?
They then launched into a long discussion about acute radiation sickness, which is largely a red herring since the threat to the general public is mainly from cancer. The NEJM article further obfuscates the issue with a table that compares the effective doses of radiation that a resident near a nuclear accident is exposed to with what someone is exposed to from something mundane like an airplane ride or a chest x-ray. This is like comparing the force of a cool breeze to the force of a knife slicing the jugular. The knife is lethal because it allows a very small amount of force to be concentrated on a vulnerable target. Similarly, the risk to Fukushima residents is not radiation spread out over their entire body, but rather radioisotopes like iodine 131 being concentrated by biological processes into a vulnerable target like the thyroid.
The NEJM authors mislead in other ways. They write “After Chernobyl, approximately 5 million people in the region may have had excess radiation exposure, primarily through internal contamination.” They cite the second IAEA study. The reader is likely to assume that up to 5 million people in the countries in Europe and Asia where the fallout from Chernobyl may have reached could have been exposed to excess radiation (i.e. radiation in excess of normal), and that this is the limit of exposure to internal radiation.
However, the IAEA study is only referring to the contamination region designated by the former USSR (a small area in the corners of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia) and does not imply that excess radiation exposure (internal or otherwise) was limited to this area. In fact, they do not use the word “excess,” but rather specify a particular level of radioactive cesium. The actual wording of the IAEA report was as follows:
More than five million people live in areas of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine that are classified as ‘contaminated’ with radionuclides due to the Chernobyl accident (above 37 kBq m-2 of 137Cs).
On the same page, the report also states that “The cloud from the burning reactor spread numerous types of radioactive materials, especially iodine and caesium (sic) radionuclides, over much of Europe.” It added that radioactive cesium-137 “is still measurable in soils and some foods in many parts of Europe.” Thus, there certainly were people outside of this narrow region of 5 million inhabitants who also were exposed to Chernobyl radiation through their environment and food. Indeed, the authors discuss the move by Polish authorities to administer potassium iodide to 10 million Polish children. Obviously Polish officials feared radiation exposure to these people.
Furthermore, there is major omission in the authors’ discussion of radiation. They discuss beta and gamma radiation, but do not mention alpha radiation. They then go on to dismiss the danger of plutonium contamination, which is dangerous precisely because it is an alpha emitter. They state that “Radioisotopes with a … very long half-life (e.g., 24,400 years for plutonium-239) … do not cause substantial internal or external contamination in reactor accidents.” The authors are either lying or ignorant. The danger from plutonium-239 has nothing to do with its half-life (long half-lives indicate slower radioactive decay). Plutonium, if ingested internally, is dangerous because the large and heavy alpha particles it emits are the most damaging to DNA and the most likely to cause cancer. In fact, Plutonium is the most lethal substance known to mankind.
As mentioned above, the IAEA cannot be thought of as an authoritative, unbiased source of health information given its explicit mission of promoting nuclear power. The same can be said for other sources cited by the authors, including the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Agency and the Nuclear Energy Agency of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. At the same time, the authors ignored prominent studies produced independently of the nuclear industry and affiliated governmental bodies that indicate that there were indeed serious public health consequences from the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island accident.
Significantly, the authors failed to mention the seminal work on the consequences of radiation exposure from Chernobyl done by Yablokov, Nesterenko and Nesterenko of the Russian National Academy of Sciences.3 This team of scientists from Russia and Belarus studied health data, radiological surveys and 5,000 scientific reports from 1986 to 2004, mostly in Slavic languages, and estimated that the Chernobyl accident caused the deaths of 985,000 people worldwide. Given the prominence of this report and the fact that its findings are completely at odds with the conclusions reached by the IAEA and other sources cited by the authors, it was intellectually dishonest not to mention the report if only to dismiss it.
Indeed, the Yablokov et al report is hardly the only major study to contrast starkly with the minimalist portrayal of the health consequences from nuclear accidents. Regarding Three Mile Island, there is the June 1991 Columbia University Health Study (Susser-Hatch) of the health impacts from the TMI accident published its findings in the American Journal of Public Health and subsequent work by Dr. Steven Wing of the University of North Carolina. These studies point to increased incidences of cancer in areas close to the reactor or downwind from it.
Another example of minimizing potential health impacts of a nuclear plant accident is this statement in connection with the accident at Fukushima:
Although the radioactivity in seawater close to the plant may be transiently higher than usual by several orders of magnitude, it diffuses rapidly with distance and decays over time, according to half-life, both before and after ingestion by marine life.
Japan has a massive fishing industry because, along with rice, fish is the staple of the Japanese diet. Any release of radiation into coastal fishing grounds will wind up being concentrated through biological processes as it works its way up the food chain and eventually to the Japanese dinner table. The narrow restrictions on commercial fishing near the Fukushima coast may be obeyed by fisherman, but many of the fish they seek are migratory, and there is no way of preventing these fish or their food sources from passing through contaminated water. Moreover, the claim that the radioactivity “decays over time” glosses over exactly how much time. While some of the radioisotopes being spilled into the ocean have half-lives of days, others have half-lives of years and even millennia. The impact on health from releases into the ocean cannot be so lightly dismissed.
Although it will take some time for the dust (or fallout) to settle, it may well turn out that the Fukushima disaster is the worst nuclear accident of all-time, surpassing Chernobyl. The contamination from the Chernobyl accident led to the establishment of a 30-kilometer wide “zone of alienation” to which people are not allowed to return. The current evacuation zone around the Fukushima plant is of comparable size, and with the Fukushima reactors continuing to release contamination for the foreseeable future, the only question is how large will be Japan’s “zone of alienation.” And while greater Tokyo has so far been largely spared due to the prevailing winds blowing so much of the contamination into the Pacific, winds will be changing with the upcoming monsoon season and the summer typhoons. [Note: countless radioactive “hot spots” have since been detected all over greater Tokyo, particularly in places where rain water accumulates.]
It is this proximity to Tokyo, one of the world’s most densely populated metropolises, that could make Fukushima the worst industrial calamity in history. An increase in cancer mortality even of the “difficult to detect” scale referred to by the IAEA study described above could condemn several tens of thousands of people. And that is far from being the worst case. The NEJM authors and others who propagate myths about the minimal casualties from Chernobyl and other accidents feed into a mindset that is leading to disastrous policy decisions. The only way to correct course is to identify the myths and the mythmakers.
- Jay Lehr said that at Chernobyl “the bottom line was that 50 people died in the explosion from radiation from fire…”
- George Monbiot stated that “so far the death toll from Chernobyl amongst both workers and local people is 43.”
- Alexey V. Yablokov, Vassily B. Nesterenko, Alexey V. Nesterenko, “Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment“, 2010, Nature – 400. Also available at: Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Vol. 1181
Titus North is an adjunct professor in the University of Pittsburgh’s Political Science department.