The Fear of Fukushima Radiation

The website What Doctors Don’t Tell You operates on the premise that there is a body of health knowledge that you are not going to find out from your doctor because they are ‘locked into conventional paradigms’, ignorant, in league with Big Pharma, or unlikely to make money from this knowledge. The mundane truth is that Doctors do not tell you the things on this website because they are wrong, misleading, conspiratorial or unnecessary. But the website is successful in driving that wedge between doctors and the patients who are prone to believe such things and, in so doing so, prime them to purchase a range of quack products and services. Today’s newsletter tells us that “Radiation from Fukushima meltdown will cause 2500 cancer cases”,

Radiation from the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan last year will claim around 1,300 deaths and cause 2,500 cases of cancer, say researchers.  This is in stark contrast to government assurances that the leak wouldn’t have any impact on health.

Although UK based, WDDTY have an American target audience. They warn that,

Around 80 per cent of the radioactive material was dumped into the Pacific Ocean, and some has washed up on the shores of North America and Europe.  The main death toll will still be in Japan, estimate Stanford University researchers, and there will be only a small risk to health among people living in Asia and North America.  Indeed, the researchers estimate that just 30 Americans will die from exposure to the dumped material.

A small industry has cropped up in the US with the likes of homeopaths selling their sugar pills to protect worried Americans against the dangers of Japanese radioactivity. Chief American homeopathy propagandist, Dana Ullman, has written in the Huffington Post advocating “Homeopathy For Radiation Poisoning”.

But what do the authors of the new research actually say? It is a somewhat different message from the “1,300 deaths”.

In fact, the best estimate from the paper is that there will be 130 extra deaths, ten times less than the ‘around 1,300’ that WDDTY want to scare you with.

So, where  do WDDTY get their figure from?

The paper* used a computer simulation of the global atmosphere to calculate what the total human exposure to the radioactive material that escaped from Fukushima after the tsunami hit the reactors. A lot of assumptions go into the calculations which means there are lots of uncertainties. Indeed, there are large ranges in the expected values,

We estimate an additional 130 (15–1100) cancer-related mortalities and 180 (24–1800) cancer-related morbidities incorporating uncertainties associated with the exposure–dose and dose–response models used in the study.

Even this is still short of the 1,300 deaths figure.  The paper looks at some assumptions about the rate of emissions, evacuation radiuses and the nature of the releases and concludes that such uncertainties could push the death figure up to 1,300.

So, the WDDTY claim that the tsunami disaster will “claim around 1,300 deaths” is not true. The upper limit, given a number of worst-case assumptions may mean that up to 1,300 have a fatal cancer. But the paper also notes this could be as low as 15 deaths. It is difficult to not conclude that WDDTY has picked the worst case figure and presented it as the likely figure in order to further its own aims at the expense of accuracy.

Let’s put these figures into perspective.

The Japanese Tsunami claimed nearly 18,000 lives. The attributable deaths to the reactor accident that add to this figure is, at the moment, zero.

Radiation-induced cancer can take decades to materialise. In the United States alone, there are annually 1,638,910 new cancer cases and 577,190 deaths. Over 40 years, and these extra deaths (and the fraction that would occur in the US and not in Japan) would have to be taken seen in the context of 23 million cancer deaths.

But there is a very big caveat even in these figures for cancer deaths from Fukushima. The modeling takes into account something called the linear no-threshold (LNT) model of human exposure. What this means is that the same quantity of human exposure to radiation has the same probability of inducing a cancer no matter how many people are exposed.

An example. Let us say that there will be on average 1 new cancer amongst 100 people exposed to 100 mSv. Now, let us take 1000 people and expose them to the same sum total of radiation. According to the LNT model, we would still expect 1 death even though now each person individually receives ten times less the dose.

It’s something of a counter-intuitive concept. If we give ten people 1000 paracetamol tablets shared amongst them, we are likely to end up with ten dead people.  Give a thousand people 1 tablet each and we would not expect any dead people. If paracetamol followed the same LNT model, we would still end up with ten dead people.

Part of the reason is the stochastic nature of harm from radiation exposure. That is, given an exposure to a certain amount of radiation (at high doses), the best we can say is that there is a probability you will get cancer. The thinking is that ionizing radiation damages DNA. Only if the DNA is damaged in a way that cannot be repaired properly is there a chance that the resultant damaged DNA will give rise to a cancer inducing mutation. Since, DNA will be damaged at random, the chances of you getting cancer are also probabilistic. The LNT model assumes we can measure the rates of cancer at high doses, given relatively quickly, and then extrapolate that back to minute doses given over long periods of time.

The researchers looking at cancer deaths are taking the amount of material released from the reactors and then trying to calulate how much of that ends up as causing radiation exposure in humans. Not all the material will end up being inhaled, ingested or landing near people. Much will end on the bottom of the sea, or will decay before reaching anywhere potentially harmful. Once the total dose has been calculated, then the LNT model allows an estimate to be made of how many deaths will follow, whether it exposed 1000 people or 100 million over several continents.

But there are good reasons to think this simple linear model does not extend down to the low doses seen as a result of nuclear accidents, occupational exposures and such activities as flying in aircraft. If an unrepairable break in DNA requires both strands to be broken at similar locations from two seperate ionising events, then we can see that low level events, happening infrequently, will give a cells repair mechanisms time to act before more damage occurs. This will result in a threshold, below which harmful mutation is near impossible, and above which the cells repair mechanisms can become overwhelmed by radiation induced damaging events.

Given the extreme difficulty of measuring tiny increases in cancer amongst large populations as a result of their radiation exposure, we simple do not know what the dose-response curve looks like at such low exposure levels. We can be pretty sure that the risk cannot be worse than the LNT model. This would mean that radiation doses became relatively more harmful as you reduced them and gave them over longer periods. Whilst a homeopath with skull water** for brains might not have an issue with this, the rest of us might see this as somewhat implausible.

The LNT model is used in a precautionary way by radiation health authorities. Many researchers are worried about the use of such a model as it gives rise to huge costs associated with nuclear safety. If we could assume that below certain levels, radiation adds no extra risk burden on societies then we need not spend large amounts of money preparing for contingencies that envisage large populations being exposed to relatively small amounts of radiation. It is quite easy to get silly about the LNT model. My professor at University calculated what the extra cancer risk was from sleeping with someone. (Humans are full of naturally occurring Potassium-40, a radioactive isotope with a half-life of about a billion years.) Being next to someone for eight hours a day will increase your total radiation exposure. Over populations of millions, this extra dose will result in cancers. The lesson? Do not sleep with people if you want to avoid cancer. (There may be other risks that turn out to be higher, such as you partner turning out to be an axe-wielding psychopath.)

Anyway, if you are interested in the sources of radiation you are exposed to and their relative amounts, I recommend XKCD as the definitive source.

Given this background, it is quite rational to make an argument that the extra radiation exposure to human populations from Fukushima  results in no extra deaths. The populations that should be of concern are those that were very close to the accident or were involved in the immediate clear up and rescue. Here, with relatively high doses given over short periods of time, the LNT model is probably quite valid. Homeopaths on the West Coast of America have other risks that ought to concern them – such as believing sugar pills can treat serious illness, or homeopathic sugar pills can prevent vaccine preventable disease.

Nuclear Power and its radiation have sunk deep into our collective consciousness as something that needs to be feared. In fact, ionising radiation is a very poor carcinogen. You need to be exposed to a lot of it before you might stand a chance of getting cancer. Other things are much better at causing cancer – like smoking, being overweight and vaccine preventable infections such as human papilloma virus.

But we will not see quacks focusing on these issues. The real money is in fear-mongering. And radiation is a great bogey man to scare your punters with.


* Worldwide health effects of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident, John E. Ten Hoeve and Mark Z. Jacobson; Energy Environ. Sci., 2012, Advance Article DOI: 10.1039/C2EE22019A

** According to Robin Ince, Skull Water is what homeopaths have in their heads- it contains the memory of brains.

23 Comments on The Fear of Fukushima Radiation

  1. Unfortunately, the fear of radiation is so ingrained in the public psyche, that even in central Europe where the last tsunami was at least 20 million years ago, planned nuclear plants have been shelved. Tell someone that the fog that appears in a typical UK Autumn (well all year round really) is ‘Radiation Fog’ and see the panic…

    • My thoughts exactly. Or even more generally, what is the LNT cancer risk for ingesting sugar pills (not just radiation, but all metabolic effects) – I’m rather certain it’d even exceed the worst-case estimate of 30 Fukushima-related US cancer deaths.

      In other words – homeopathic radiation protection would cause more (stochastic) harm than the radiation in the first place.

  2. I went into this in some detail back when the Fukushima incident first happened ( Bob Park’s What’s New( is a great source of down to earth commentary on the risks involved.

    More people die in coal mining accidents in China every day than will die from Fukushima. More people will die from radiation-induced cancers from smokestack emissions of coal fired power stations this year, than will die from Fukishima. Many hundreds of times more people will have died from the tsunami than from the nuclear leak. The people most at risk of radiation poisoning at Fukushima are the heroes who stayed on site to try to control the meltdown; second is probably anybody who was sold bogus homeopathic radiation remedies rather than using iodine tablets, which are provably effective against the most significant source of radioactive contamination danger.

    You are at more risk living in Cornwall, with its natural levels of radon, than in any Japanese town.

  3. Excellent blog on Fukushima radiophobia being used for fame and profit by atomic snake-oilers. It well-parallels some of my work. I would like to suggest your readers come to my website (the Hiroshima Syndrome) for thrice-weekly Fukushima updates, and avoid the fuku-quackery. Keep up the good work. Your site seems very promising.

  4. Ullman was flogging 30C Kali iodatum (KI) shortly after the Fukushima disaster. As there is no evidence that potassium iodide would produce symptoms of radiation poisoning in healthy people and therefore doesn’t follow the homeopathic creed, I conclude that it was a barefaced grab for the money from worried people. I haven’t included a link to his site, just google ‘homeopathic iodide’, but it sickeningly has a banner that reads ‘Why our site is trustworthy AND worthy of your business and support!’ Ugh!

    • Do they inform their buyers that the solution may be harmful, since the potency of the natural K40 will have increased hundreds fold. 😉

      • Hm. To be fair, they’d claim that their remedy “heals what concentrated K40 would cause”. That that claim is bullshit on many levels is a different story, but let’s at least not ridicule straw men.

  5. What were the results of the experimental tests of nuclear materials done on Americans without their permission by some agencies such as NASA, Air Force, Army, ect;? Why wasn’t THOSE results brought out to the public? WHY are so many tests and their results HIDDEN from the public? Don’t answer these questions and you are not to be trusted any more than the other snake-oil doctors.

    • She – who obviously must be obeyed – can you provide references to the HIDDEN tests you would like me to comment on and I will be happy to do so.

      There are lots of public reports on the effects of radiation on populations. Most importantly the survivors of the atomic bombings in Japan. It is from these exposures much of the extrapolation takes place to the lower doses received by populations from the environment, medical used and from accidents. Lots of technical problems in doing this not least the actual relatively few extra cancers experienced in Japan.

  6. i would have thought most of the radiation would have been negated by the mammoth clean up effect of the japanese homeopathic medical association. It was also the 1st of april so that could explain it better:

    “At 11.00am “I hope this helps to clean the river as much as possible.”
    Headstream of a river at the foot of a mountain.
    Ms Yui spread homoeopathic remedies, Radioactivity (Cadm-s.、Sol.、Pluton.、Kali-iod.、Rad-br.、Uran-n.、Caes-h),
    X-ray,Heart Sutra and Shinto ritual prayer.
    This river runs into a town, which the nuclear power plants are located and goes to Pacific Ocean through the land of Fukushima.”

  7. Radiation is taking an alarming issue in different countries nowadays. Well, who will be glad to know if they are infected by radiation isn’t it? Maybe one of the solutions to ease people is to have health and safety consultants so that workforce’s safety is ensured.

    • Spam is taking an alarming issue in different countries nowadays. Well, who will be glad to know if they are infected by spam isn’t it?

      • Maybe one of the solutions to ease people is to have spam and spam consultants so that workforce’s safety is ensured.

      • [blockquote]Supported by the global LexisNexis legacy in law and the Rule of Law,[/blockquote]

        Yes, that’s right. Not just the rule of law, but the Rule of Law.

        These are people to be reckoned with.

  8. Radiation is taking an alarming issue in different countries nowadays. Maybe one of the solutions to ease people is to have health and safety consultants so that workforce’s safety is ensured. Well, who will be glad to know if they are infected by radiation isn’t it?

    • I don’t think it will work. I watched the media at play during the disaster. People from the Philippines to the USA were frightened by the efforts of the international media.

      No matter what we think of when it comes to safety, the media are way ahead of us.

      My current Media Health prognosis is poor.

      This Reply is brought to you by “things that go with Stout”

      In stores Sunday

  9. Nuclear radiation is perfectly safe for we know nutron bombs do not kill…nuclear radiation poisoning is a myth…lead sheilding for X-Rays are unnecessary…rise in birth defects around Chernobyl and Fukashima must be due to organic foods…

    Trust the Government

    Trust the Pharmecutical industry

    Homeopathy could never work: Well try some doses of 1M Aconite over several days until…

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