Unexpected Post-Fukushima Health Woes: Depression, Obesity

By Judy Foreman
Guest Contributor

Nearly two years ago, a giant earthquake off the coast of Japan sent a 13-meter high tsunami crashing into the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, causing meltdowns in three of the six reactors and ultimately, triggering an explosion. Thousands were killed by the tsunami and earthquake.

No one has died from radiation and in fact no radiation health effects have yet been observed among the public or workers, according to a December, 2012 statement from a United Nations expert committee.

But even as the actual health effects from radiation – at least so far – are turning out to be much less dramatic than many people feared, a host of other, less-feared but very real, outcomes are causing lasting trouble. These include mental health problems such as alcoholism, depression, anxiety and, in the case of children whose parents and teachers are too afraid to let them play outdoors, a rise in obesity.

VOA Photo S. Herman/wikimedia commons

VOA Photo S. Herman/wikimedia commons

It is a striking illustration of what often happens in public health. What we think we should be most afraid of is often, in reality, less dangerous than we think, while other things that we are blasé about, carry higher risks. We fully believe, for instance, that we are being killed by toxic stuff in our air, water and food and ignore the huge health risks from sedentary lifestyles.

What we think we should be most afraid of is often, in reality, less dangerous than we think, while other things that we are blasé about, carry higher risks.

A fascinating article last month in the journal Nature illustrates the point beautifully.

The Fukushima Health Management Survey, described in detail in the Nature article, found that the doses of radiation experienced by people evacuated from the nuclear zone were surprisingly low. For nearly all the evacuees, the exposure level was only about 25 millisieverts (mSv). That is considerably less than the 100-mSv level, at which risks from radiation, including cancer, are believed to increase. (A Sievert is a unit of ionizing radiation.)

And this is not the only research team to have found lower levels of radioactive pollution than feared. A World Health Organization project studied exposure to radiation in the six months after Fukushima. Continue reading

A Pediatrician Remembers Fukushima’s Children And The Risks Of Radiation

By Dr. Carolyn Roy-Bornstein

It has been six months since a 9.0 magnitude earthquake triggered a tsunami that crippled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Radiation fall-out from the disaster continues to be a significant health problem for the people of Fukushima and the dangers will in all likelihood continue for years to
come. As a pediatrician, I’ve been wondering recently, who will care for the children of Fukushima?

Children are at greater risk of the dangers of radiation for many reasons. Their minute volumes, or the amount of air they breathe in one minute, are greater than adults, causing them greater exposure to radioactive gases. They also live and breathe closer to the ground and therefore closer to nuclear fallout as it settles to earth. Radioactive Iodine is readily transmitted to human breast milk. (Cesium has been detected in the breast milk of seven women in the Fukushima area.) Cow’s milk also becomes quickly contaminated when radioactive materials settle onto grazing fields. Continue reading

Overuse of Chest CT Scans: The Massachusetts Story

Double scanning CT patients: Beth Israel Hospital in Needham is nearly three times the national average, according to The Times

A big investigation in The New York Times over the weekend documents the outrageous overuse of CT scans by medical providers. The report found that “hundreds of hospitals across the country needlessly exposed patients to radiation by scanning their chests twice on the same day, according to federal records and interviews with researchers.”

The excellent interactive map accompanying the story allows you to search by state to see whether your favorite hospital is double scanning. In Massachusetts, according to the The Times map, most of the hospitals are well below the national average for double scanning, which is 5.4%. That is all but one: in 2008, at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Needham, 16% of chest CT scan patients (203 patients in total) were scanned twice in the same day.

Radioactive Spinach? So Far, Even Popeye’s Risk Is Pretty Low

Crunching the numbers on radiation-tainted spinach, an expert finds that so far, the health risk is slim

When disaster strikes, it’s difficult to keep perspective.

For instance, I was walking across the Brooklyn Bridge when the second plane hit the World Trade Center on 9/11. Now, no matter how often I come across statistics about flying being safer than driving, there’s a part of me, deep down, that doesn’t really believe it.

Still, it’s helpful to remain rational. So hat’s off to NPR’s Richard Knox for doing the math and offering a reality check after some dire warnings from the World Health Organization about food contaminated by radiation emitted from the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant in Japan.

Here’s Knox’s bottom line assessment, based on an interview with Peter Caracappa, a health physicist at Renssealaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. who has been calculating various radiation risks on specific foods, such as milk, spinach and drinking water: “…the risk of ingesting even the most highly contaminated Japanese foodstuffs reported so far is very, very small.”

“The long and the short of it is that we’re not going to be able to detect any statistically significant change in the cancer rate for anyone as a result of the events in Japan,” Caracappa told Shots.

The Spinach Risk:

Caracappa figures someone would need to eat 41 pounds of that Hitachi spinach to reach the nuclear power plant worker’s annual exposure limit. “That’s a significant amount of spinach,” he allows.

But what about cancer? That’s probably what most people worry about when they hear about radioactivity in food. Well, it takes 20 million becquerels to yield a Sievert’s worth of exposure; remember, that’s what it takes to increase a lifetime cancer risk by 4 percent.

That translates to 820 pounds of spinach – more than two pounds a day for a year.

The Milk Risk:

Well, nobody eats spinach every day. But many people drink milk every day. And one lot of milk sampled from the town of Kawamata, 29 miles from the power plant, reportedly contained 1,510 becquerels of radiation per kilogram.

To reach the radiation dose limit for a power plant worker, you’d need to drink 2,922 eight-ounce glasses of milk. To raise your lifetime cancer risk by 4 percent, you’d have to drain more than 58,000 glasses of milk. That would take you 160 years, if you drank one 8-ounce glass a day.

Brigham Expert: Why Not To Buy Iodine Pills

Children in Kawamata, Japan, take potassium iodide

People are doing it already, perhaps mainly West-Coasters concerned about what the Pacific winds will bring. The Wall Street Journal reports here:

Supplies of potassium iodide, a preventive against radiation poisoning of the thyroid gland, are running low at some manufacturers, as Americans seek protection amid fears that radiation from Japan could head to the U.S., according to the companies.

One leading supplier, Anbex Inc., quickly sold out of its supply of more than 10,000 14-tablet packages on Saturday, said Alan Morris, president of the Williamsburg, Va., company.

He said the closely held firm was getting about three orders a minute for $10 packages of its Iosat pills, up from as few as three a week normally.

“Those who don’t get it are crying. They’re terrified,” said Mr. Morris. The company tells callers that the likelihood of dangerous levels of radiation reaching the U.S. is low, but some callers, particularly on the West Coast, remain afraid, Mr. Morris said.

Interest is also high at Fleming Pharmaceuticals, a St. Louis County company that makes potassium iodide in liquid form. “It actually has been insanity here,” said Deborah Fleming Wurdack, a co-owner.

So let’s all take a deep breath, with the help of Dr. Richard Zane, vice chair of emergency medicine at Brigham & Women’s and an expert on disaster preparedness. He offers two main points:

-The risk that the radiation emergency in Japan will lead to the need for Americans here to take potassium iodide is “remarkably low,” he said.
-And if something should happen that would indeed require taking potassium iodide or any other intervention for radiation exposure, “there are remarkably robust plans in place in the United States for mass care and mass pharmaceutical distribution.”

(NPR’s Scott Hensley explains here how iodine tablets can help in a radioactive zone.)

A couple of Rich Zane’s other points about potassium iodide: It prevents your thyroid from absorbing radiation and thus may prevent future thyroid cancer, but it only protects the thyroid, no other organ. “It is done because it’s something we know we can do and it works to a certain degree,” he said.

And its utility depends on how susceptible a person is, based on many factors, including age, exposure, distance, and whether they’re shielded from the radiation. “Let me reiterate, the likelihood is exceedingly low, and there are robust plans in place for mass screening and distribution if there’s a need,” he said. Continue reading

Daily Rounds: Medicare Fraud; Hope For Hauser?; Legalizing Pot; Heavy Smoking And Alzheimer’s; Thyroid Radiation Threat

Medicare Database Offers Window Into Doctor Fraud and Abuse – WSJ.com One New York City-area family-practice doctor "pocketed more than $2 million in 2008 from Medicare, the federal insurance program for the elderly, government records suggest. That made her one of the best-paid family-medicine physicians in the Medicare system. But more noteworthy than the sum is her pattern of billing, which strongly suggests abuse or even outright fraud, according to experts who have examined her records. This doctor didn't do typical family medicine. Instead, she administered a wide array of sophisticated tests, including polysomnography sleep analyses, nerve conduction probes and needle electromyography procedures—some of which have been flagged by federal antifraud authorities for special scrutiny.” (Wall Street Journal)

Harvard Case Against Marc Hauser Is Hard to Define – NYTimes.com“The still unresolved case of Marc Hauser, the researcher accused by Harvard of scientific misconduct, points to the painful slowness of the government-university procedure for resolving such charges. It also underscores the difficulty of defining error in a field like animal cognition where inconsistent results are common.” (The New York Times)

Pot Legalization Divides California's Black Voters : NPR “Voters across California are divided on the issue of legalizing the recreational use of marijuana, but the division is especially true for black voters throughout the state. The California NAACP is endorsing Proposition 19. But some black religious leaders fear that passing the ballot measure would only hurt already struggling communities.” (npr.org)

Heavy smoking in midlife may be associated with dementia in later years “Heavy smoking in midlife is associated with a 157 percent increased risk of developing Alzheimer's disease and a 172 percent increased risk of developing vascular dementia, according to a Kaiser Permanente study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.” (EurekAlert)

Thyroid Cancer Patients Shield Others From Radiation – NYTimes.com “One person alarmed about the situation is Representative Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, whose office has been studying the issue. He accuses the Nuclear Regulatory Commission of turning a blind eye to the problem. ‘My investigation has led me to conclude that the levels of unintentional radiation received by members of the public who have been exposed to patients that have received ‘drive through’ radiation treatments may well exceed international safe levels established for pregnant women and children,’ Mr. Markey said in a statement.” (The New York Times)