Fukushima: Low Radiation Exposure, But High Psychological Distress
By Aparna Venkatesh | Health & Medicine
August 17, 2012
Fukushima residents suffered from low levels of cesium exposure while TEPCO workers suffered from high levels of psychological distress after the disaster, say two reports published in JAMA.
AsianScientist (Aug. 17, 2012) – Two new studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association have revealed high levels of psychological distress among Fukushima workers and low levels of radiation exposure among nearby residents after the March 2011 tsunami and earthquake.
In the first study, researchers used whole-body counters to measure internal radiation exposure in the 9,500 residents of Minamisoma, a town about 14 miles north of the Fukushima Daiichi plant and in the evacuation zone.
Most of the adults and children who were tested experienced low levels of cesium exposure, and the highest levels of contamination observed were below the thresholds for the administration of Prussian blue, an antidote used in the treatment of cesium poisoning.
“Most exposures likely happened with a week of the meltdown, when residents of Minamisoma inhaled airborne cesium. But some exposure could have happened when they were returning home after the evacuation and ate contaminated food,” said study author Dr. Masaharu Tsubokura of the Institute of Medical Science at the University of Tokyo.
Making sure people are eating from an uncontaminated food supply is important in preventing long-term health consequences, Tsubokura noted, adding that although the radiation levels do not appear to be alarming, the health of people living near the plant will need to be tracked for years.
“To our knowledge, this is the first report on internal exposure to cesium radiation after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant incident. In this sample, exposure levels were low in most adults and children tested and much lower than those reported in studies years after the Chernobyl incident,” the authors wrote in the JAMA report.
The researchers noted that because the screening program was started six months after the disaster, higher exposure levels might have been detected earlier, and that it was not possible to ascertain whether the low levels of exposure were due to low ongoing exposure or decay from high exposure values.
“Because data were collected from volunteers, the results may not be representative of the entire population in contaminated areas. No case of acute health problems has been reported so far,” the authors wrote.
Post-traumatic stress disorder
In the second study, Jun Shigemura of the National Defense Medical College and his colleagues examined the psychological status of Fukushima workers two to three months after the disaster for symptoms of general psychological distress, including post-traumatic stress response (PTSR).
In the aftermath of the disaster, the electric company TEPCO that manages the plants was criticized for its poor disaster response and for subjecting its workers to discrimination.
The study examined all full-time workers from the Daiichi plant (1,053 workers) and Daini plant (707 workers) in May and June 2011. Unlike the Daiichi plant which experienced a meltdown, the Daini plant experienced damage but remained intact.
Using a self-report questionnaire, the researchers assessed sociodemographic characteristics and disaster-related experiences of the workers at both plants. Measures of general psychological distress included feeling nervous, hopeless, restless, depressed, and worthless in the last 30 days.
The authors found that compared with Daini workers, Daiichi workers were more often exposed to disaster-related stressors. In addition, the researchers found that general psychological distress and PTSR were common in nuclear plant workers two to three months after the disaster.
“Daiichi workers had significantly higher rates of psychological distress (47 percent vs. 37 percent) and PTSR (30 percent vs. 19 percent). For both groups, discrimination or slurs were associated with high psychological distress and high PTSR,” the authors reported.
Source: JAMA; Photo: IAEA Imagebank/Flickr.
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