Editorial: Thyroid examinations launched in Fukushima Prefecture

Effective system must be made to allay anxiety

At the time the accident occurred at the Fukushima No. 1 (Daiichi) nuclear power plant, Fukushima Prefecture was home to some 360,000 children 18 years of age and under. The prefectural government has now begun conducting thyroid examinations of this population of children. This sweeping follow-up project is reputed to be the largest such research effort anywhere in the world.

When radioactive iodine is taken into the body through the consumption of food, it often lodges in the thyroid glance within the throat. For children, in particular, the risks are grave. A spike in thyroid cancer among children has been one effect of the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986.

It is only natural that parents in Fukushima are worried about their children’s health. The relevant authorities are urged to make every effort to allay this anxiety and devise a system by which the early detection and treatment of health concerns are assured.

This round of health examinations employs ultrasonic waves. If abnormalities are detected, samples of blood and cells will be examined as well. The examinations are being held in every municipality of the prefecture and will be completed by the spring of 2014. Health checks will then be held every two years for children under the age of 20. For those 20 and older, the regular checks will be held every five years.

In Chernobyl, restrictions were not placed on shipments of food, including milk, that had become contaminated with radioactive materials. It was a hard lesson learned, for the thyroid glands of many were exposed to radiation through the food supply.

Following the accident in Fukushima, however, there was an immediate halt to all shipments of raw milk and other food items. Some experts believe that, as a result, no cases of thyroid cancer will be seen among the children of Fukushima Prefecture.

Still, the Japanese government has estimated that the amount of radioactive iodine leaked from the crippled plant is equivalent to about 2.5 of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima. In the wake of the accident, the central government and prefectural government carried out health checks on about 1,000 children who were living near the plant. The results showed no cases where exposure exceeded official limits, but it was found that the thyroid glands of nearly half of the examined children had been exposed to radiation.

Beyond Fukushima Prefecture, “hot spots,” where the level of radiation is particularly high compared to adjacent areas, have been found in a number of locations in the Kanto region, centering on Tokyo. As there are limitations to the countermeasures that can be taken alone by the prefectural governments, the central government must not only provide the prefectures with financial support, it must ensure that the prefectures are able to develop an effective system for managing the health of their residents.

In connection with the examinations of the children of Fukushima Prefecture, it appears that measures to follow up on the children who come to live outside the prefecture are lagging behind. Young people in this target population may leave their hometowns in the future for reasons related to study or work. It is vital that a system be established that will enable them to undergo future health checks, free of charge, wherever they reside.

The cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have assumed responsibility for the health care of the A-bomb survivors by forming support entities in cooperation with local governments, medical associations, and universities, as well as pursuing other measures. They have offered a helping hand to A-bomb survivors in line with the principle that “wherever they are, they are A-bomb survivors,” no matter their place of residence inside or outside Japan. This approach should be put to use in Fukushima.

Meanwhile, we must remember to protect the privacy of the citizens of Fukushima Prefecture. Thoughtful consideration is needed so they will be seen as individuals, not “potential victims of thyroid cancer.”

The people of that region have been forced to suffer the effects of the earthquake, the tsunami, the nuclear accident, and harmful rumors involving radiation contamination--“quadruple woes,” as the governor of Fukushima Prefecture put it. They should not be made to bear the burdens of prejudice and discrimination, too.

After the war, the A-bomb survivors were plagued by the heartless words and actions of others on numerous occasions as they went on with their lives, suffering mental traumas in addition to health concerns. Such a situation must never be repeated. This is another lesson learned from the experiences of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

(Originally published on October 12, 2011)