“Risk vs Fear” from Fukushima: Rare Rationality in Today’s LA Times Op/Ed Pages

Forbes– Not many people read the Los Angeles Times, which may not be a bad thing.  Fewer still read the op/ed pages which–given their general left-wing bias–is a good thing.   So much more the surprise that we happened to see in the LA Times’ March 11 op/ed pages a piece entitled “Risk vs fear” that presents the non-alarmist science on the Fukushima nuclear disaster health risks.

The risks are, in a word, negligible as far as all the science accumulated since Hiroshima would let us conclude.  Not that the average person in Japan or abroad would know or believe this, mainly due to the failure of government to properly and coherently present the science and explain the risks.  Combine this failure with what I have written previously is the pusillanimity that must be that hallmark of bureaucrats everywhere, but which reaches new heights in Japan.

The authors of the op/ed piece are Robert Peter Gale, a professor of hematology at Imperial College London, who it is noted is involved in post-disaster studies of both Chernobyl and Fukushima; and Owen Hoffman, an expert in radiation risk assessment working in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

What is the degree of risk developing cancer of people who have been exposed to radiation from Fukushima?  According to Gale and Hoffman, it is “quite small,” and even saying this may overstate the case.  The authors point out that every person is exposed to radiation every day from a host of sources, about half natural and half man-made.  Eighty percent of the latter would be from doctor-ordered X-rays and CT scans.  How many people are refusing these tests for fear of increased cancer risks?

In explaining the risks which people in Japan face from Fukushima, and to put this risk in proper and understandable perspective, authorities should first advise people of the “base line” of cancer  incidence with which everyone lives.  The “base line” risk of a 50 year old man developing cancer during rest of his life is 42 percent.   It is almost the same for a 10 year old boy.   Studies of survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki A-bombs, as well as the people exposed to the Chernobyl meltdown 25 years ago, including the 500,000 cleanup workers who got exposures far  higher than anyone associated with Fukushima, are conclusive:  no convincing evidence of increased leukemias or other cancers.  (From Chernobyl there were tragically several thousand cases of thyroid cancer, almost all in children who drank iodine-131 tainted milk soon after the disaster and did not receive iodine tablets in treatment.)

As for Fukushima, the kind of radiation was similar to, but about four to ten times less than, that of Chernobyl.  What does this mean for those directly exposed?  Positing that one of them is our 50 year old man, the authors say that lifetime risk of cancer may have increased from 42 percent to 42.2 percent.  This is about the same increase faced by anyone who lives in Denver rather than in New York City for ten years.

Last week I commented that the Japanese public–and particularly its food producers in Fukushima prefecture and elsewhere–are being ill-served by pusillanimous bureaucrats and politicians who are terrified of ever being accused of failing to warn of radiation contamination or to protect the public from even the most remote and unsubstantiated alleged health risks.  The example is the new 100 becquerel level of cesium pollution (against the previous 500 becquerel temporary standard) per kilogram of rice.   I should have mentioned that the U.S. standard for “intervention” is 1200 becquerels.  But to know Japan is to know that its bureaucracy seems to think nothing of setting standards far stricter than anywhere else in the world without regard to the scientific evidence on the grounds that there still might “possibly” be a risk.  It is a variation on the zero-defect, perfectionist mentality:  so long as it cannot be proven not to cause harm, it is presumed to do so.

Every day the media in Japan are filled with reports of various levels of radiation and other pollutants, usually without reference to whether these levels are really threatening to health, usually because, as noted, the negative has not been proven cannot be guaranteed.  What are almost as bad are the explanations, which generally are that at the “elevated” levels some (unspecified) health risk “cannot be ruled out” if someone consumes (usually voluminous and unusual quantities) of the food daily for a year or more (and did not wash or cook it beforehand, which everyone does), and if the food was not raised in a hothouse (which in winter everything is).

In such an atmosphere, of course mothers are fearful for their children and people generally do not know what to think or do.


A reader commented that my previous piece was “callous.”   I do not think I was callous.   I was lamenting that people are being needlessly made to live in fear.


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