Here’s this week’s Media Mix about continuing media coverage of the health situation, especially regarding children, in the irradiated areas of Fukushima Prefecture. As stated in the column, the authorities, a term that represents the government but also includes the nuclear power industry and certain medical institutions, tend to play down the results of tests and other empirical evidence of possible health problems because the longer they do so the sooner people will forget about it and put the accident behind them. Of course, those who live in those areas can’t afford to forget, which is why the mothers profiled in Hitomi Kamanaka’s documentary are still looking for answers. The point of the column is that the media throws out information in a rather random fashion, just adding to the confusion, and maybe that can’t be helped owing to the nature of radioactivity and its still unknown effects on the body.
An exchange between Katsuya Kodama, the medical researcher mentioned in the column, and a female emcee for the net news channel DemocraTV illustrates the conundrum in a more casual fashion. Though Kodama is careful not to say anything that could be construed as a belief that the radiation in Fukushima is probably not harmful to children (he works with many groups who are nominally against nuclear power in Ishikawa Prefecture), he obviously harbors doubts about the findings of people like Toshihide Tsuda, also mentioned in the column. For one thing, Tsuda’s new findings show a marked increase in incidence of thyroid cancer for individuals under the age of 19, with incidence rates mirroring those of children exposed to the Chernobyl accident in the 1980s. Kodama points out, however, that while it’s true that the incidence rate is higher for people under 19 in Fukushima, the demographics don’t fit those for Chernobyl. In Fukushima, four years after the accident, most of the cancer cases are in kids over the age of 10, while in the case of Chernobyl, most cancers four years after the accident were found in kids under the age of 5. Only 2.4 percent of the cases were in children over 10. Such a discrepancy could mean that the cancers in Fukushima were not caused by the accident, but more research “with better controls” needs to be carried out, he said.
Then the emcee says something interesting: “So what you’re essentially saying about Fukushima is that ignorance is bliss.” It’s a blunt summation of what Kodama is getting at, but it does make him answer to the possible charge that he’s doing the authorities’ work for them. His answer is, if anything, diplomatic: “Maybe, but it can’t be helped. The people there are already worried, so they have to be checked.” When the emcee counters that what he is talking about might be difficult for the lay person to understand, he agrees, but adds, “Experts must help people understand this data in an appropriate way. We cannot say these children were not affected by the accident, but we shouldn’t approach all these data with preconcieved ideas.”
In addition, Kodama’s own ideas about cancer may be one reason his theories don’t hold much weight with the authorities, especially the medical community, whose reputation is based at least partly on an aggressive stance toward cancer. Anyone who implies that cancer is overdiagnosed and that doctors are too quick to treat early stages of the disease with powerful drugs and invasive surgery tend to be shouted down, even though such opinions are gaining currency in the global medical community. It’s something that must be taken into consideration when discussing the health effects of radiation.