World Health Organization Accused Of Hyping 'Small' Fukushima Cancer Risk

Page Mackinley

According to the World Health Organization, people exposed to the highest doses of radiation during the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster in 2011 may have a slightly higher risk of cancer that is so small it probably won't be detectable.

The wording of the WHO's report, which was released on Thursday, has led to some experts questioning why they issued it all, given that the "risk" is so small.

Gerry Thomas, a professor of molecular pathology at Imperial College London, accused the WHO of hyping the cancer risk.

"It's understandable that WHO wants to err on the side of caution, but telling the Japanese about a barely significant personal risk may not be helpful," she said.

According to Thomas, the WHO report used inflated estimates of radiation doses and hasn't taken Japan's quick evacuation of people from Fukushima into account in its findings, SFGate reports.

"This will fuel fears in Japan that could be more dangerous than the physical effects of radiation," Thomas said, also noting that people living under stress have higher rates of mental illness, suicide, and heart problems.

Wade Allison, an emeritus professor of physics at Oxford university, agrees.

"On the basis of the radiation doses people have received, there is no reason to think there would be an increase in cancer in the next 50 years," he said,"The very small increase in cancers means that it's even less than the risk of crossing the road."

Even Richard Wakeford, who is based at the University of Manchester and is one of the authors of the WHO report, wouldn't argue with that assessment.

"These are pretty small proportional increases," said Wakeford, referring to the WHO's estimate that rates of thyroid cancer among women who were exposed to the radiation as infants could reach up to 1.25 percent compared to the normal 0.75 percent.

Wakeford went on to state that people who lived beyond the directly affected areas of Fukushima, that risk dropped even further. "The risks to everyone else were just infinitesimal."

He added:

"The additional risk is quite small and will probably be hidden by the noise of other [cancer] risks like people's lifestyle choices and statistical fluctuations. It's more important not to start smoking than having been in Fukushima."

However, since thyroid cancer is extremely rare and the normal lifetime risk of developing it is about 0.75 percent, in real terms this "risk" actually translates to 0.5 percent for those women who had the highest radiation doses as babies, said The Associated Press.

Back in 2011, around 110,000 people who lived near the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant were evacuated after a huge earthquake and tsunami on March 11 knocked out the plant's power and cooling systems, causing meltdowns in three reactors and radiation to leak into the surrounding air, soil, and water.

World Health Organization Accused Of Hyping 'Small' Fukushima Cancer Risk

Experts gathered by the WHO have tried to assess the risk of various cancers based on estimates of how much radiation people at the heart of the nuclear disaster would have received, which means those who lived in the affected communities in Fukushima, a rural agricultural area about 150 miles (240 kilometers) north of Tokyo.

In addition to the thyroid cancer risk -- which though very small is considered worth checking since iodine is released in nuclear accidents and is absorbed by the thyroid especially in children --- those experts also calculated risk figures for other cancers.

They said people in the most affected regions had an additional four to seven percent overall risk of developing cancers including leukemia and breast cancer. In Japan, men have about a 41 percent lifetime risk of developing cancer of an organ while a woman's lifetime risk is put at about 29 percent. For those most hit by the radiation after Fukushima, their chances of cancer would rise by about one percent.

Which, Wakeford agrees, is so small they will probably not be "observable."

SFGate notes that in Japan, dairy radiation levels were closely monitored following the accident and children are not "big milk drinkers anyway."