Certain sections of the population based in Japan’s Fukushima jurisdiction are at a higher risk of contracting specific cancers following the nuclear power plant disaster in the region in 2011.
It is nearly two years since the earthquake and tsunami off the east coast of Japan led to releases of radioactive material into the environment from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has now published a comprehensive assessment on the health risks associated with the disaster, in which it calls for long-term continued monitoring and health screening of those people identified as a high cancer risk.
A team of international experts estimated risks in the general population in Fukushima Prefecture, the rest of Japan and the rest of the world, plus the power plant and emergency workers who may have been exposed during the emergency response.
“The primary concern identified in this report is related to specific cancer risks linked to particular locations and demographic factors,” explained Dr Maria Neira, WHO director for public health and environment.
“A breakdown of data, based on age, gender and proximity to the nuclear plant, does show a higher cancer risk for those located in the most contaminated parts. Outside these parts – even in locations inside Fukushima Prefecture – no observable increases in cancer incidence are expected.”
For people in the most contaminated location, the estimated increased risks for specific cancers over what would normally be expected are:
- all solid cancers – around 4 per cent in females exposed as infants;
- breast cancer – around 6 per cent in females exposed as infants;
- leukaemia – around 7 per cent in males exposed as infants; and
- thyroid cancer – up to 70 per cent in females exposed as infants (the normally expected risk of thyroid cancer in females over lifetime is 0.75 per cent and the additional lifetime risk assessed for females exposed as infants in the most affected location is 0.5 per cent).
For people in the second most contaminated location of Fukushima Prefecture, the estimated risks are approximately half of those in the location with the highest doses.
The report also examines the emergency workers inside the nuclear power plant. Around two-thirds of emergency workers are estimated to have cancer risks in line with the general population, while one-third is estimated to have an increased risk.
The report also notes that the radiation doses from the damaged nuclear power plant are not expected to cause an increase in the incidence of miscarriages, stillbirths and other physical and mental conditions that can affect babies born after the incident. As well as the direct health impact on the population, the document highlights that the psychosocial impact may have a consequence on health and well-being. These issues should not be ignored as part of the overall response, say the experts.
“The WHO report underlines the need for long-term health monitoring of those who are at high risk, along with the provision of necessary medical follow-up and support services,” said Dr Neira. “This will remain an important element in the public-health response to the disaster for decades.”
Dr Angelika Tritscher, acting director for WHO’s Food Safety and Zoonosis Department, added: “In addition to strengthening medical support and services, continued environmental monitoring – in particular, food and water supplies – backed by the enforcement of existing regulations, is required to reduce potential radiation exposure in the future.”
The report, Health risk assessment from the nuclear accident after the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami, based on a preliminary dose estimation, is available at www.who.int/ionizing_radiation/pub_meet/fukushima_report/en/index.html
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