Pictures designed and drawn by Fukushima's children, combined with their words and portraits by English artist Geoff Read - following their instructions. Meet the children behind the the argument and the statistics. They continue to live with the ongoing consequences of the Fukushima Daichi nuclear accident, the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of March 11th 2011.
Last update March 2017 Scroll down for: Children’s physical health,
Children’s emotional well-being,
Radiation, information and families,
children are still living with the consequences of the earthquake, tsunami and
on-going nuclear disaster of 11th March 2011. However because of commercial
interests, political pressure on the media and secrecy due to the
strategic nature of nuclear power, combined with insufficient medical and
environmental research to produce clear science, we will never have a full
picture of the health effects of Fukushima.
more than 250,000 children tested, 185 children have officially been confirmed
to have thyroid cancer (as of 11.3.17), of which 145 have been operated on. In
some cases cancer had spread to the children’s lymph nodes or lungs. Before the
disaster official rates for child thyroid cancer in Japan were low, at from 0
to 1.3 (depending on age) per 100,000 per year, so this is a huge rise. Stable
Iodine, which helps to protect the thyroid, was not distributed for children
and WHO recommendations (1999) were not followed.
families in Fukushima and other contaminated parts of Japan are reporting that
children’s overall health has deteriorated, their immune systems are low, and
that successive infections, viruses, nosebleeds, eye and respiratory problems
and exhaustion are common. Despite this, no screening for other health effects
of radiation exposure has taken place, and the publishing of morbidity figures
in Fukushima across illnesses ceased after the year 2011-12 showed an increase
than 17,000 children (6.3% of Fukushima’s children) have left Fukushima
prefecture, but the majority remain in Fukushima, and some are living in areas
with annual radiation dose levels higher than the international limits for
adult nuclear workers of 20 millisieverts (20mSV) per year; twenty times the
ICRP recommended limit of 1mSV per year. After Chernobyl, evacuation was
triggered by levels above 5mSV per year, so areas where Japanese communities
are still living with similar levels of contamination would have been evacuated
and would still be exclusion zones. Some children have been officially
evacuated from the 20km zone around Fukushima Daichi, but some of those were
moved to areas close by that also have seriously elevated levels of radiation,
like Iwaki and Fukushima City, places from which other families have
self-evacuated. 6 years on many evacuated families are still living in
temporary accommodation, including small pre-fabricated units.
policy of the Japanese central government and Fukushima prefectural governments
is to keep people in place, claiming that this definitely ‘safe’, with no
differentiation in dose limits for children and young women who are more
vulnerable than older males. They are promoting ‘decontamination’ over
evacuation, pressuring evacuees to return and trying to stop support for them
in other prefectures. Housing support for voluntary evacuees will cease on 31st
March 2017, putting added pressure on families to move back to areas they know
to be highly contaminated, and with radiation still being released into the air
and sea from Fukushima Daichi, which
from being stable. Fukushima is still subject to large earthquakes,
including one of 7.4 Mw on 22nd
New York Times have reported that decontamination has not resulted in habitable
levels, and that levels have risen again, as radionuclides, leaves and soil are
washed or blown in from surrounding areas. This was confirmed in a February 2017 report from Greenpeace.
‘Decontamination’ is done by scrubbing, sweeping and digging, often by hand, a
risk in itself – and there is no agreement about where to put this contaminated
matter, so it is often re-buried on site without special measures, or left
stacked in the open in bags. Decontamination is in effect simply moving
contamination around. Some municipalities near Fukushima Daichi are asking
children to return to live in these conditions, whilst others are against it,
just one example of the wide variation in opinion within Fukushima and beyond.
behaviour of Tepco, owners of the plant, and the Japanese government in
deliberately hiding information and resisting responsibility at every stage is
consistent with previous public health emergencies, such as Minamata
disease where victims of industrial mercury poisoning were not fully
acknowledged until a court case 17 years later.Internationally a similar pattern has been seen in relation to asbestosis and tobacco.
is still a country divided against itself on responses to the disaster and
nuclear power in general, with multiple court cases in progress and unreported
demonstrations around the country. The division is usually between those who
are convinced by official reassurances and those with access to wider, more
independent information, rather than on party-political lines. Ex Prime Ministers
Koizumiof the right
of centre Juminto (LDP) party, andNaoto
Kanand of the
Democratic Party, having been supporters of nuclear power while in office, are
now severe critics, while current PM Abe is pro-nuclear.
It is accepted that children, young people and
females are at greater risk of health effects from exposure to radiation, which
can occur externally from proximity; or internally by being breathed in, or
swallowed in dust, food or drink.
children tested, 185 children in Fukushima have thyroid cancer (official
figures at March 2017). 145 have had operations and in some cases malignant
cells have been found in other parts of their bodies.
•1st round of screening 2011-2013: Thyroid cancer confirmations 116, of which
101 had an operation.
•2nd round of screening 2014-2015: Additional thyroid cancer confirmations 68, of
which 44 had an operation
•Announced 27/12/16: a further one confirmed case
Thyroid cancer diagnoses: 185, of which 145 have had an operation.
first round of thyroid testing in Fukushima 36% of children from the highest
radiation areas whose thyroids were tested were found to have cysts. At the
time it was widely suggested that this demonstrated the ‘testing effect’: that
if you test a population with sensitive equipment you will always find
abnormalities, but that this was ‘normal’.As with all medical issues that have arisen so far, officials said there
was ‘no reason for concern’, ‘no link with radiation’ and no further testing
was required for two years. The second round of testing two years later found
68 cancers in children that had previously been screened and found to be clear.
Only testing by Fukushima University Medical Teaching Hospital is included in
the figures. Results from other bodies and areas are not allowed into official
figures. After pressure from the Japan Thyroid Association headed by the
controversial Professor Shunichi Yamashita some hospitals beyond Fukushima in
the northern half of Japan have been refusing to test or treat thyroid issues.
the disaster official rates (National Cancer Centre website, information since
removed) for child thyroid cancer in Japan were low, at from 0 to 1.3 (depending
on age) per 100,000 per year. This suggests that up to 3.5 cases might be
expected amongst Fukushima’s 250,000 children, although the actual official number for
2008 was zero cases, so 185 is a huge rise. We know that children were
exposed to Iodine-131 before the radioactivity of the plume was acknowledged,
and only the staff of Fukushima University Teaching Hopital and their families
were given protective medical iodine.This,
along with the fact that cancers were detected in children who had previously
been screened as clear, suggests that the ‘testing effect’ hypothesis is not
one of the public meetings held by the Fukushima University teaching Hospital
there was criticism of the number of operations carried out, on the basis that
thyroid cancer is not seen as being aggressive. Interestingly the surgeons
explained that they needed to as it was urgent. This probably reflects reports that
for many the cancer has progressed rapidly and has begun to spread to lymph
nodes or lungs.
including reporters for mainstream western news services, have blamed mothers
for worrying too much for taking children for too many tests, suggesting that
stress will be the only significant health effect. However, there is no
evidence that stress or scans cause thyroid cancer.
Until the age of 18 children with thyroid cancer will
receive free medical care if they are still registered in Fukushima – after
that there will be no on-going help. Children under 18 who have moved their
family registration have to pay whatever their age.
Here is a website
collating official thyroid cancer statistics before and after the disaster,
with links to the original information (Japanese)
health effects and lack of testing
are reporting that children’s health has deteriorated, their immune systems are
low, and that successive infections, viruses, nosebleeds, eye and respiratory
problems and exhaustion are common. Parents are campaigning for detailed
lifelong health checks for all children in Fukushima and other areas across
Tohoku and Kanto and where hotspots have been found.
no programme of testing for anything other than thyroid cancer, despite
findings by independent doctors that the blood of children living in
contaminated areas is undergoing changes which would in normal circumstances
lead to a range of adverse health effects. When they move to un-contaminated
areas their blood has been seen to return to normal, suggesting that a sensible
policy would be for children to move away from contaminated areas.
resistance to the idea that radiation may have a wide range of adverse health
effects on children other than hard cancers. This is an anti-scientific
attitude, as new information from Fukushima’s children should be sought with an
open mind, not rejected because it doesn’t fit a pre-judged, fixed position.
Fukushima is a missed opportunity to expand our knowledge.
the disaster Fukushima prefecture published morbidity statistics, and in the first
year after the disaster deaths across the Fukushima population were up were up
12% on the previous year (this did not include tsunami deaths). Publication was
stopped after this and information has been removed from the prefecture’s
State Secrecy Law (2013) has the effect of suppressing the
acknowledgement and sharing of information on health effects as its provisions
are so blurred as to include information about civil nuclear power and public
health, with intimidating punishments of 10 years in prison for civil servants
leaking information and five years for civilians and journalists helping them.
A projected conspiracy law is viewed by many as a further effort to stifle openness.
meantime some are arguing that results from examining insects and other
wildlife should be used as an early warning system to change policy for
children now. Studies are already showing health impacts on
wildlife including genetic effects because of the faster turnover of
generations. Wild boar living in the evacuated areas have been found to contain
extremely high levels of contamination.
and use of contaminated waste
concern to many parents is the policy of the incinerating contaminated rubble
and debris from Tsunami-hit areas and the subsequent disposal of the highly
concentrated ash produced, usually in non-specialist facilities without
adequate filtration - now largely completed. This occured in other, less
affected areas across Japan, thus spreading radiation, asbestos, cadmium and so
on further than necessary. Whilst it is again difficult to quantify the risk to
children’s health it is hard to see why the risk would be taken at all. The
reason given that it is to support Tohoku and ‘share the pain’ despite some localmayors from the Tsunami
areas saying that they prefered to deal with it themselves. Campaigners suggest
that it is more to do with profit and the grants available for refurbishing
ageing incinerators. Successful protests by families and concerned citizens
have prevented this in many areas, but Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, Kita Kyushu and
Akita have done it among others. Waste with less than 8,000Bq/kg of caesium can
be used to make concrete or compost, for example in venues for the Tokyo
For a more detailed overview on children’s health,
please see this letter by a Japanese doctor. And a 2012
comparison of various health markers for children's health from Fukushima
before and after the disaster in context with with Chernobyl and Nagasaki is here(Accessed 18.3.17)
Children’s emotional well-being
Children are likely to have seen distressing
television coverage of the tsunami and explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi plant,
and witnessing their parents’ confusion may have amplified their own fear. They
may have absorbed some of the stress and arguments in the following period, and
divorce is not unusual, with differing views on radiation risk and separation
when mothers evacuate with children, leaving fathers behind to work and look
after the family home a common factor.Their
attempts to make sense of all this will have been made difficult by very mixed
and conflicting messages from schools, parents, and perhaps their friends. Some
of this stress and conflict will have been internalised, and may be ‘acted out’
in various ways over time, with Japan’s relatively high suicide rate a
potential concern: 2007 figures .
Childhood in Fukushima has changed greatly, as many
children in the eastern half (Hamadori and Nakadori including the cities of
Fukushima and Koriyama) are not allowed to play outside, help in allotments or
gather wild food as they used to. Not being able to play properly is probably
what has had the most day to day psychological impact in that it is what
children notice most. Parents have been dressing their children in long
sleeves, long trousers and facemasks even in the hottest weather. Windows were
kept closed at home and in schools, in the early months of the disaster even in
very hot weather-concerned families
still do this. Children have had to begin thinking about everything they do in
terms of radiation risk, from where they play, to dust during school sports, to
the food they eat.
Some evacuee children are thriving, while others have
experienced adjustment difficulties, missing their family, friends and school,
and some are still living in temporary accommodation. Many children are really
missing their fathers, who have often stayed behind in the family home because
of commitment to work and worries about finding it elsewhere. Some previously
successful learners are struggling with school or dropping out. Bullying of
children from Fukushima by other children in their new area is not uncommon,
echoing the ostracism of hibakusha (those affected by the atomic bombing
of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and of victims of Minamata mercury poisoning.
Some claim that stress will be the only significant
impact of the Fukushima disaster, and that mothers are to blame for burdening
their children with their ‘emotional’ reaction and exaggerated fear. In fact
most women have assessed the available information from a variety of official
and unofficial sources and have made a considered decision based on what they
consider best for their children. Nearly all hadno previous experience of activism but are now
campaigning hard to protect Japan’s children from radiation exposure.
It remains to be seen how the disaster will impact on
Fukushima’s children’s mental health long-term, and most initiatives initially
concentrated on practical needs. After Hurricane Katrina Save The Children
estimated that 37% of Louisiana children suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,
including clinically diagnosed depression, anxiety, or behaviour disorders.
PTSD can manifest itself in younger children in regressive, needy behaviour and
increased frustration and anxiety, and in teenagers in increased risk–taking
behaviours, school avoidance and difficulty in talking amongst other things.
Traditionally there are few opportunities for
discussion and debate in the Japanese education system, and certainly not to
discuss emotions. There have been reports that some teachers in Fukushima prefecture
who attempted to talk about the subject of the nuclear disaster and radiation were
sacked; and that children were prevented from eating lunches prepared at home
or were humiliated in front of the others for refusing to drink milk from
Fukushima because their parents are concerned. It is to be hoped these are
Central and Fukushima government initiatives focussed
on the idea of standing up, fighting for Fukushima, smiling, and so on.
Children could be forgiven for thinking that if they feel sad or angry, or have
left the area, they have somehow let down Fukushima and their friends. Families
vary in their care-giving style, but again discussing an individual’s emotions
is culturally quite rare. There are some very positive protective factors in
the closeness of family life (often including up to four generations living
together) and very strong community life across Fukushima, especially outside
town centres. In an ageing population children are highly valued, particularly
in rural areas of Fukushima where young people have been leaving for decades.
It may be that cultural factors like the idea of group harmony and the
tradition of being ‘ganbaro’ (determined to struggle), while it can repress
expression, will help some children who have grown up with it. To a degree,
children are taking their cue from children and adults around them, as they
have little information from anywhere else to work with.
In recent years voluntary groups have been developing
that include emotional support in their range of activities.
Radiation, information and families
There is a scientific consensus on the dangers of very
high doses of radiation; and also that that pregnant women and their unborn
children, children, young people and young women are the most affected by
radiation in general. However there is no scientific consensus on the
cumulative risks of long-term exposure to lower levels of radiation in food and
the environment, or the mechanisms of internal exposure. Nature Magazine and the British Medical Journal,
for example, have both carried articles detailing why the studies have not yet
been done to make the science of this clear. And yet official information is
always that it is categorically ‘safe.’ This unscientifically categorical
approach makes it extremely difficult for children’s parents to decided what to
do, as they juggle concerns - about their children’s health, school
continuity and family and friend support networks - with the practicalities of
work, home ownership, and eligibility for compensation.
There is a clear difference between parents with
access to independent information via the Internet and foreign media, and those
who rely on official information via mainstream television and newspapers.
Before the disaster Japan was 11th out of 180 countries in the press freedom
index, but by 2016 Japan had slumped to 72nd, the lowest of the G7 countries;
and media have been threatened with closure by politicians and critical
reporters including well known news anchors sacked as reported in the LA Times and here.
The ex-governor of Niigata prefecture, Izumida, who
opposed the re-start of the local nuclear reactor, felt it necessary to
repeatedly state in public that he would never commit suicide, and that if he
was found dead it would definitely not be suicide.
Many say that few trust official information any more,
as critically important information about the severity of the disaster,
contamination levels and the direction of the radioactive plume was withheld,
resulting in unnecessary exposure for children and families. NHK, Japan’s
national broadcaster has largely failed to achieve balanced reporting: from
next to useless or missing weather and wind direction reporting in the early
days, and a lack of critical analysis or hard questioning of officials in
general; to a failure to report mass protests for more evacuation or against
nuclear power. The few useful programmes on the subject have often been shunted
to the early hours when few can watch, and the director of one was sacked. As a
consequence many families are now refusing to pay the license fee. Other TV
stations relying on advertising have strong links with the nuclear industry,
with the results you would expect – no critical reporting, and contracts
cancelled for those who make anti-nuclear statements. It has been hard for
parents to know where to turn to for impartial or balanced advice. Due to a 1959 agreement even the World Health Organisation’s
materials and statements have to be passed by the International Atomic Energy
Authority, which exists to promote the use of atomic energy.
Professor Yamishita who was the official advisor on
radiation protection to the Fukushima prefectural government is notorious among
parents for having toured Fukushima telling people
that if they smiled they would be protected from radiation; and telling
children that they were lucky, as working out their exposure would make them
good at maths; and that exposure of up to 100mSV a year was safe.He was apparently paid very high fees for his
role, but later admitted he had given a false picture of safety
and resigned when the first thyroid cancer cases were announced.
Given all this, it is not surprising that families
have been divided by differences of opinion, often leading to divorce, with
reports of concerned parents who want to evacuate or be as careful as possible
about their children’s food being ostracised by those who want to trust
official assurances or simply not think about it. Japanese education emphasises
learning by rote and discourages learning to make critical judgements. As one
mother told me, “Really, we Japanese don’t want to think.” This is now changing,
driven by people’s concern for their children.
For my summary of how many Japanese
parents are attempting to minimise their children's radiation exposure please see here.
The safety of food is a concern for people throughout
Japan, from the principle of avoiding internal exposure and minimising risk to
children where a choice is possible. Many are pressing for all school meals to
be sourced from west Japan and Hokkaido, and particularly in Fukushima’s
schools where children already have exposure to radiation in the environment.
The effort of researching which food companies are using what products for home
shopping, and of pressing education authorities to change their policy is
exhausting for busy parents. Meanwhile, all food is officially ‘safe’ if it is
in the shops, though it is often only tested by small samples of land and
produce rather than comprehensively, and there is no specific labelling.
Detailed testing of all produce and land is still urgently needed. When
concerned people have done their own more detailed testing, or requested it
from independent scientists, they have often found levels well above official
safety limits, even from within areas officially cleared as ‘safe.’ Official
testing reluctantly followed only once independent efforts proved it necessary.
Some farmers in Fukushima have refused to grow until their land specifically is
tested, while others have carried on as normal. Food from contaminated areas
has sometimes been discovered to have been re-labelled as coming from
elsewhere, and Fukushima rice has been blended with that from other areas.
Education authorities have been slow to take the food issue seriously, and
anecdotal evidence suggests a few are illegally preventing children eating
lunches prepared by their parents. Pressure has been put on families to eat
food from Fukushima in order to support the economy there.
Wild vegetables gathered from wooded mountains (sansai) were an important part of the
diet and culture of Tohoku before the disaster, but it has been found that the
rate of absorption of radionuclides (bio-availability) is particularly high in
wild food, especially mushrooms, berries, freshwater fish, and extremely high
levels of contamination have also been found in wild boar meat. Families that
are aware of this have stopped feeding sansai to children, while those unaware,
and older people wishing to continue the tradition, continue to eat them, in some
cases getting them tested first.
There are many independent testing centres around
Japan where anyone can bring food, soil, water, and anything from clothes and
shoes to dust from domestic vacuum cleaners to be tested. Levels found are
often higher than in official testing, partly determined by the sensitivity of
Many groups organised by families, academics,
scientists and other citizens have formed in Fukushima, throughout Japan, and
the wider world focussing on issues related to Fukushima’s children, often with
mothers taking the lead. Activities include:
•Legal cases against the re-starting
of nuclear power stations; seeking compensation for those affected; and successfully
looking for acknowledgement of responsibility for Tepco and the
government. Many of the 12,000 plaintiffs are mothers, with legal work provided
free by concerned lawyers
•Campaigning for more evacuation,
especially of children from eastern areas of Fukushimaincluding Fukushima City, Koriyama City, and
•Campaigning for families (including
those who have evacuated unofficially) to be directly compensated rather than
money being channelled through corporations
•Campaigning for regular long-term
health checks for all Fukushima’s children and those in hot spots elsewhere –
not just for thyroid cancer
•Campaigning for school meals
throughout Japan (and especially in Fukushima) to be either sourced from west
Japan and Hokkaido or individually tested
•Campaigning for a credible and
transparent food safety system
•Campaigning against the use of
contaminated waste in products including concrete and compost.
•Reforming the energy system to
prevent further disasters, ending nuclear power, increasing renewable energy,
and moving towards locally owned ‘micro generation’ and away from the area
•Supporting children and evacuees
practically and emotionally through the establishment of numerous voluntary
groups offering free services including medical checks, psychological support
note, I am not a scientist or specialist. The above is my current understanding
of the subject as a father living in Fukushima at the time of the disaster and
endeavoring to make a balanced judgement and share information, both from
official sources and from the ordinary Japanese community who are working to
protect children as best they can. After evacuating in the immediate aftermath we returned to examine how
practical it might be to live safely and only finally left after a
further 3 months, during which time I joined local people in tsunami clean-up close to the exclusion zone. This is not an hypothetical subject for me. I have met and drawn with many children in Fukushima, and we have friends and extended family living there now, with whom we are in regular contact.