Japan: Are Kids Being Exposed to Too Much Radiation?

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A U.S. medical group has slammed the Japanese government and senior nuclear adviser Toshiso Kosako has tearfully resigned over the levels of radiation exposure Tokyo says are safe for students at elementary and junior high schools in Fukushima prefecture. In a statement quoted by Kyodo news agency, Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) says the exposure limit set for school grounds in the area affected by radiation from the crippled nuclear power plant  – 20 millisieverts per year – puts children and pregnant women at an unacceptable risk for cancer.

The statement reads:

[Twenty millisieverts] for children exposes them to a 1 in 200 risk of getting cancer. And if they are exposed to this dose for two years, the risk is 1 in 100. There is no way that this level of exposure can be considered ‘safe’ for children.

On Saturday, Prime Minister Naoto Kan – in a rare show of pulse – came out swinging to defend his government’s handling of the nuclear crisis, chalking up Kosako’s resignation over the schoolyard limits and other issues to “a difference of opinion among specialists,” according to the New York Times. Two days later, anti-nuclear activists met with government officials in Tokyo to urge the education ministry, which set the exposure limit, to reconsider. The limit was set on April 19 and was approved by Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA). Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano has since said that a more conservative hourly limit for school playgrounds of 3.8 microsieverts per hour has been established in addition to the yearly threshold.

The 20 millisieverts per year benchmark is on the outside of what the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) recommends in its guidelines for governments dealing with radiation leakages:

When the radiation source is under control contaminated areas may remain. Authorities will often implement all necessary protective measures to allow people to continue to live there rather than abandoning these areas. In this case the Commission continues to recommend choosing reference levels in the band of 1 to 20 mSv per year, with the long-term goal of reducing reference levels to 1 mSv per year (ICRP 2009b, paragraphs 48-50).

For the protection of the public during emergencies the Commission continues to recommend that national authorities set reference levels for the highest planned residual dose in the band of 20 to 100 millisieverts (mSv) (ICRP 2007, Table 8).

Many parents, understandably, are less than thrilled with the government for not using a more conservative number when it comes to their kids. But the government has defended its decision, saying that radiation levels will continue to fall in coming months and that it will clean up the contaminated soil in affected areas, including in school yards. Not everyone, however, is holding their breath: according to the Times, the city of Koriyama has said it will take action now to remove radioactive soil in 15 elementary schools and another 13 kindergartens.

Trying to keep as many kids in school as possible — and as many parents relaxed about their kids’ safety — may seem like the least disruptive choice to a government trying to get the nation back on a path of recovery. Instead, parents feel their kids are even more at risk, and Fukushima residents feel there’s yet another reason for the rest of the nation to shun them.

It’s a dark bet to be making on children’s health, and one  — to take the extremely cynical view — that the deciding officials will never have to see through. Decades later, the health  impact of Chernobyl is still not clear; the  kind of cancers that can develop from radiation exposure can take up to 60 years to manifest. As Helen DCaldicott, a founder of PSR, wrote in a May 3 editorial in the International Herald Tribune:  “Doctors know there is no such thing as a safe dose of radiation.”