In today s New York Times, well-known anti-fearmonger and Harvard scholar Dave Ropeik exposes the feet of clay behind the scares surrounding radiation exposure. In his op-ed, Fear vs. Radiation: The Mismatch, he points out how infrequent the health effects of the Fukushima disaster of March 2011 were at least from the radioactivity so feared by all. On the other hand, he asserts that the exaggerated reaction to possible exposure did indeed wreak havoc on the residents nearby. He makes an analogy to the effects of the Chernobyl blast in 1986:
But nuclear accidents have provided strong evidence that those fears have dramatic health consequences of their own. The World Health Organization s 20-year review of the Chernobyl disaster found that its psychological impacts did more health damage than radiation exposure did, and a principal cause of the population s debilitating stress was an exaggerated sense of the dangers to health of exposure to radiation.
Sadly, the lessons that should have been learned from that episode were not applied in Japan, to the detriment of those living in the region:
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, orJapan generally. (The World Health Organization predicts minor increases in rates of some cancers, for some ages and genders, in small pockets of more highly contaminated areas near the plant.)
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.
In fact, the officials in the Fukushima region over-reacted so intensely that outdoor activities were curtailed, and the sequelae among schoolchildren include the highest rates of obesity in Japan. ACSH covered similar territory in June of this year: Japanese nuclear disaster update: None sick, none dead. And ACSH s Dr. Josh Bloom took on one of the most outrageous fear-mongering proponents in this Forbes.com essay: Garbage In, Anti-Nuclear Propaganda Out: The 14,000 Death Fukushima Lie.
ACSH s Dr. Gilbert Ross adds, The official policy on radiation exposure is the standard, hyper-precautionary there s no safe level of exposure. That s false, obviously, as we explained in our publication, Nuclear energy and health, a few years ago. In fact, there is some evidence that low-level exposure to ionizing radiation may confer health benefits. The same panic occurred after the 1979 Three-Mile Island accident, which released exactly zero radiation and thus harmed no one. So we in public health owe a debt to Dave Ropeik for his solid, science-based work.