Inside Japan’s Fallout Zone: Children’s Growth Severely Stunted From Nuclear Disaster


Eight months after the crippled Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant belched enormous plumes of radiation over the Japanese countryside, a new study reveals severely stunted growth in children living in the fallout zone. Those findings coupled with another alarming piece of news from the Tokyo Times – “Radiation affects 8 percent of Japan’s territory” – indicate that tens of thousands of children could experience serious “physical problems” across a significant portion of the country. And that’s long before cancer even becomes an issue for these children.

From a Nov. 10 ABC News Australia report:

…months on from the nuclear meltdowns at Japan’s Fukushima plant the long-term cancer risks for children are in the spotlight, but a new study has highlighted more immediate problems.

Thousands of children living in the fallout zone are confined indoors because of radiation fears, and doctors worry they are not growing at a sufficient rate.

So we have children living like prisoners in their homes to escape the radiation – which has blanketed 30,000 square kilometers, or an area roughly 15 times the size of Tokyo – but that confinement has opened the door to a host of other “more immediate” health issues. More from the ABC News report:

“The kids just can’t play in the dirt or enjoy nature,” teacher Junko Akanuma said. “They may look cheerful enough but they are building up tremendous amounts of stress inside.”

According to doctors stress in children can lead to physical problems.

And according to the new study, those “physical problems” include drastically stunted growth:

Shintaro Kikuchi is a paediatrician who has been tracking the weight of 250 kindergarten children in Koriyama, less than 60 kilometres from the crippled nuclear plant.

His findings are startling. They show there was an average weight gain of 0.8 of a kilogram over the past year.

The year before children in the same age group put on 3.1 kilograms, or nearly four times as much weight.

“We can blame this low-growth rate on the disruption to hormone production caused by stress” Dr Kikuchi said.

Not surprisingly, stress has been running high in Japan across all age groups since March 2010 when an earthquake and tsunami left the country in crisis. Not only is the area of contamination vast, radioactivity levels remain dangerously high and ongoing food-chain scares continue to fray nerves. Radiation has become the bogeyman that keeps people up at night. Many Japanese families have purchased their own Geiger counters to monitor radiation levels inside and around their homes as well as in food products. According to a Nov. 22 ABC News Australia report:

The government says some of the radioactive material fell with rain and snow, leaving the affected areas with accumulations of more than 10,000 becquerels of caesium per square metre.

Last week tests found unsafe levels of radioactive contamination in recently harvested rice from the Fukushima region.

The levels of radioactive caesium were measured at 630 becquerels per kilogram, above the maximum allowable level of 500 becquerels.

Officials from Fukushima prefecture have now asked all rice farmers in the district to suspend shipments.

There have been a series of scares over radiation in food in Japan in recent months; in products such as beef, mushrooms and green tea, but never before in the country’s staple, rice.

Authorities have also begun testing soil in some Tokyo playgrounds and schools for traces of radioactive contamination.

One of the 250 kindergarten children Dr. Kikuchi surveyed for the study, Natsumi Suzuki, gained only half of a kilogram in the eight months since the Fukushima reactors melted down. Her mother is frantic, as her daughter seems to be wasting away. According to Dr. Kikuchi: “Kids who can’t get enough outdoor exercise tend to lose their appetite and they may then not get enough protein to build up their muscles.” In extreme cases, cognitive development can also be negatively impacted.

So eight months into the Fukushima nuclear disaster – years before cancer cases take center stage – we are already seeing tangible evidence of the impact of radiation on a large segment of the Japanese population. No doubt, things are going to get much worse before they get any better.

“I want to play in the park and to ride the swings too. To be outside,” says little Natsumi Suzuki. But for now, until radiation levels ebb, those simple pleasures of childhood will have to wait.

Read the ABC News Australia report on children’s stunted growth:

Read the full report on just how much of Japan is blanketed in radioactive material:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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