As the nuclear disaster in Japan continues to unfold in horrific detail, we are all trying to grasp the extent of the radiation exposure and what the long-term impacts will be on human health. At this point, I have little doubt that the damage will far exceed that of the devastating Chernobyl accident in 1986 (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chernobyl_disaster).
We’ve seen a variety of contaminated products and potential exposure pathways laid out in the relentless media coverage. Clouds or plumes of radioactive material or particles can impact the body through direct external gamma and beta exposure and through inhalation and ingestion. Tap water in Tokyo has been declared harmful for infants to drink in certain quantities. Milk and other dairy products have been contaminated with “elevated radiation levels” and declared unsafe if ingested on “a regular basis.” Radioactive material has been detected in at least 11 types of vegetables, including broccoli and cabbage. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and safety agencies in other countries, have banned importation of certain Japanese food products. A “neutron beam,” a kind of radioactive ray, has been observed at least 13 times at the crippled Fukushima nuclear facility. The body can absorb the energy from that sort of ray through the skin, like an x-ray.
With this barrage of radiation-related information, it’s difficult to put into any sort of context all the varying radiation levels and durations of exposure that endanger human health and possibly cause cancer and death. Take this example from a recent Washington Post article:
Though officials had said the radiation in milk and spinach was not high enough to be harmful to humans, the latest tests show contamination that is high enough to be unsafe if the vegetables are consumed on a regular basis. Eating 100 grams for 10 days would be equivalent to the amount of radiation a person receives from the natural environment for a year, health officials said.
From my experience, it is relatively easy for the government and industry to confuse the public by diffusing the damage when it comes to radiation exposure. Radiation is a complex and complicated concept so the potential for confusion is high. We saw government and industry exploit that potential surrounding the disasters of Three Mile Island (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_Mile_Island_accident) and Chernobyl. It’s done by using the time-tested tactic of comparing apples to oranges. An example: Comparing the dose from inhalation of radioactive cesium or iodine to “natural” external background exposure, x-rays and CAT scans. These are two very different types of exposure, the inhalation of radioactive particles being much more dangerous and damaging to the human body.
You won’t hear this from official sources, but the inhalation of one particle of plutonium or uranium can, and does, cause lung cancer. The images below show exactly what radioactive particles do inside the body. The first image shows a radioactive particle of plutonium in the lung of a dog, the second shows a rat’s lung. In the second image, each “star tract” is a single particle lodged in the lung. You can actually see the radiation bombarding the lung tissue. The same damage occurs in human lungs when radioactive particles are inhaled.
But what does it all mean in terms of human health? How much exposure does it take to trigger cancer in a person? How many people in Japan could die from radiation exposure?
Over the last 20-odd years, I’ve tried wrongful death cases tied to exposure to naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM) so I am quite familiar with the way radiation ravages the human body. There are three fundamental elements to understand: (1) There is no safe level of radiation exposure, so any any exposure regardless of how small increases the risk of cancer; (2) Radiation exposure is cumulative over the duration of a person’s lifetime; and (3) Radiation can cause genetic mutations that can be passed along to offspring, increasing the risk of cancer across generations.
In preparation for trying my radiation-poisoning cases, I have had the honor or working with an expert witness by the name of Dr. Chris Busby. He is a renowned British scientist recognized internationally for his work on the health effects of ionizing radiation. He holds the prestigious post of scientific secretary of the European Committee on Radiation Risk (ECRR) (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_Committee_on_Radiation_Risk). Chris is a brilliant guy, and he develops risk models – or health consequences – based on radiation dose levels and other factors.
Dr. Busby has done the math and developed a risk assessment for the crisis in Japan. He has come to the scientific conclusion that in a city the size of Tokyo (30 million people), roughly 120,000 people will get cancer – and most likely die from it – over the next 50 years from the nuclear disaster we see unfolding today.
It’s a terrifying reality, but it does bring some needed perspective to an exceedingly unclear situation.
See Dr. Busby’s risk assessment and methodology below.
European Committee on Radiation Risk
Risk Model and Radiation from Fukushima
Dr. Chris Busby, Scientific Secretary, ECRR
March 19th 2011
Radioactivity from the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe is now reaching population centers, like Tokyo.
Japanese authorities are downplaying the risk on the basis of absorbed dose levels based on the dose coefficients of the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP). These dose coefficients and the ICRP radiation risk model are inaccurate and unsafe for this purpose. This is clear from hundreds of research studies on the outcomes from the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. That point has also been conceded by the editor of the ICRP risk model, Dr. Jack Valentin, in a discussion with Chris Busby in Stockholm, Sweden in April 2009.
Valentin specifically stated in a videoed interview (available on www.llrc.org and vimeo.com) that the ICRP model could not be used to advise politicians and other public officials of the health consequences of a nuclear release like the one from Fukushima. Valentin agreed that for certain internal exposures the risk model was insecure by two orders of magnitude. The Committee Examining Radiation Risks of Internal Emitters (CERRIE) (see www.cerrie.org) stated that the range of insecurity was between 10 and members of the committee put the error closer to 1,000, a factor which would be necessary to explain the nuclear site child leukemia clusters.
The ECRR risk model was developed for situations like Fukushima.
Since the European Committee on Radiation Risk (ECRR) 2003 Radiation Risk Model (updated in 2010) was developed for just these kinds of exposure situations, it can be employed to assess the risk in terms of cancer and other illnesses (see www.euradcom.org). It has been checked against many situations where the public has been exposed to internal radioactivity and shown to be accurate.
Using the ECRR 2010 radiation risk model, the following guide to the health effects of exposure can be employed: (1) Take the dose that is published by the authorities and multiply it by 600 to get the approximate ECRR dose for the mixture of internal radionuclides released from Fukushima; and (2) Multiply that number by 0.1 to get the ECRR 2010 cancer risk.
Here are two examples that show the level of risk on the people of Japan:
Example 1: The dose from exposure to radioactive milk from Fukushima is said by the authorities to be so low that you would have to drink milk for a year to get the equivalent of a CT scan dose. A CT scan dose is about 10 milliSieverts (mSv). Assuming a person drinks 500 milliliters a day, the annual intake is 180 liters so the dose per liter is 0.055mSv. The ECRR dose per liter is at maximum 0.055 x 600 = 33mSv. Thus the lifetime risk of cancer following drinking a liter of such contaminated milk is 0.0033 or 0.33%.
Thus 1,000 people, each drinking 1 liter of milk, will result in 3.3 cancers in the 50 years following the intake. From the results in Sweden and elsewhere following Chernobyl, these cancers will probably appear in the 10 years following the exposure.
Example 2: External doses measured by a Geiger counter increased from 100nSv/h to 500nSv/h. What is the risk from a week’s exposure? Because the external dose is only a flag for the internal dose we assume that this is the internal ICRP dose from the range of radionuclides released. That includes radiodines, radiocaesium, plutonium and uranium particles, tritium etc. A week’s exposure is thus 400 x 10-9 x 24 x 7 days or 6.72 x 10-5Sv. We multiply by 600 to get the ECRR dose which is 0.04Sv. Then we multiply by 0.1 to get the lifetime cancer risk which is 0.4%.
Thus, in this case, in 1,000 individuals exposed for a week at this level, 4 will develop cancer due to this exposure.
In 30 million, the population of Tokyo, this would result in 120,000 cancers in the next 50 years. The ICRP risk model would predict 100 cancers from the same exposure. Again we should expect to see a rise in cancer in the 10 years following the exposure. This is due to early clinical expression of pre-cancerous genomes.
Other health effects are predicted, including birth effects, heart disease and a range of other conditions and diseases. For details, see ECRR2010.
These calculations have been shown to be accurate in the case of the population of Northern Sweden exposed to fallout from the Chernobyl accident, and also are accurate for the increased in cancer in northern hemisphere countries following the 1960s weapons testing fallout (i.e., the cancer epidemic). The general public and the Japanese authorities (and other authorities around the world) would do well to calculate exposure risks on the basis of these approximations and to abandon the ICRP model which does not protect the public. This was the conclusion of a group of international experts who signed the 2009 Lesvos Declaration (this can be found on www.euradcom.org ).
ECRR 2010. The 2010 Recommendations of the European Committee on Radiation Risk. The health effects of exposure to low doses of ionizing radiation. Regulators Edition. EDs: Chris Busby, Alexey V. Yablokov, Rosalie Bertell, Molly Scott Cato, Inge.
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