Daily life in Fukushima’s radioactive environment
By Cindy Folkers
“Whatever I do, all pleasure has disappeared from my life…we are living with a narrow range of activities.”
Akemi Shima was a resident of Date (duh-tay) City when the reactors at Fukushima exploded, spewing radioactive particles into the air, across the land, and into the waters. (She tells her story in her own words this week as well. See here.)
Her family had moved there years earlier to live closer to nature. It was supposed to be healthy. But for residents of Date City, still blanketed nine years later by radioactive contamination, the struggle for protection of health continues amid accusations of scientific error, betrayal and abandonment.
Shima, now 50, has been living through these accusations and her children’s health issues, while trying to keep her family safe in a contaminated land that has caused fractures within her community. Her experience is not only shared by other victims of Fukushima, but is a cautionary tale for any communities that have nuclear reactors in their midst. We share pieces of her story here for the first time in English.
“The victims have been unable to talk about the damage. … I don’t want to cry. I don’t want to be dismissed… Let me say that something is wrong.”
Instead of establishing mandatory evacuation zones based on contamination level, the government of Japan limited mandatory evacuation to 20 km from the destroyed reactors. Date City had highly contaminated areas but was 60 km away. Therefore, the residents were left to their fate as the City, under direction from the national government, had decided to recommend specific “spots” for evacuation. “Spots” actually meant individual houses and the recommendation to evacuate was based on a number of inconsistent and confusing criteria. This caused division among residents because a “recommended spot” (house) was eligible for evacuation aid, while a house that was often next door received none.
While only areas exceeding 20 mSv/year were under recommended evacuation and supposedly only for households with children, in reality exceptions were made. Shima’s family did not evacuate at first because they were not ordered to and she was told her house was safe. It was only later she realized that the workers who came to her town hall wearing white protective suits – while she and her children wore regular clothes and took no precautions – were shielding themselves from radioactivity.
Shima ultimately decided she couldn’t voluntarily relocate because of the medical and familial bonds she had in the community. For those who stayed – like Shima – little warning was given about the need to, or how to, protect against radioactivity. Even after measuring levels that were higher than normal, government officials told residents they were safe and they shouldn’t make trouble.
“…from fall to winter, one week out of every month, all the skin on [my son’s] body turned reddish black; he couldn’t move, and had to stay in bed. He repeatedly experienced having his skin peel off, heal, [and] then peel off again. That continued for approximately 3 years [after the catastrophe began]. Sometimes, he ended up being hospitalized.”
Shima’s son and daughter had eczema, a common skin condition for children in Japan. It worsened considerably soon after the catastrophe. Her son suffered symptoms associated with radiation exposure, including heavy nosebleeds. Nosebleeds were so widespread among Date City’s children that recommendations for treating them were featured in a school health newsletter.
Even though evacuation recommendations were lifted about one year later for certain areas in Date City, many people were hesitant to return to the contaminated zone. The issue of resettlement had not been resolved and studies of human health remained controversial.
Beginning in August of 2011, glass badges were distributed to approximately 8000 children, pregnant women, and those living in areas with high levels of radiation. In July of the following year, glass badges were distributed to all residents of Date City, numbering approximately 60,000.
However, outside researchers published studies using residents’ badge data without their knowledge or permission – a violation of ethical guidelines for human subject research. These studies became mired in distrust, bad science and charges of scientific misconduct.
Akemi Shima participated in the badge study, and noticed some scientifically questionable practices and assumptions that were later detailed in a paper she co-authored with Shin-ichi Kurokawa, Professor Emeritus of The High Energy Accelerator Research Organization.
In 2019, the University of Tokyo and Fukushima Medical University cleared their researchers — the authors of the controversial badge data studies — of scientific misconduct, a charge requiring intent. However, scientific inconsistencies, mathematical miscalculations and concerns over invalid conclusions remain.
“During my [first] three years in Fukushima, I stopped accepting certain words… ‘Kizuna’, ‘Reconstruction’, and ‘Reputational damage’. In the process of reconstruction and prevention of reputational damage, even the truth has become invisible, and what has happened is just as if it had never happened.”
Kizuna or “ties that bind” is a phrase mobilized by the Japanese government from the earliest days of the disaster to claim that inquiries about radiation harm will hurt the community and therefore people should remain quiet, no matter the suffering.
To rebuild life in Date City, the prefectural government, at the urging of the national government and the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP), attempted to enshrine the reckless notion of “rehabilitation” – the idea that one can live with radioactive contamination and that health and recovery responsibilities reside with individuals and communities, not industry or government. Adopting a “rehabilitation/recovery” regime mandates that residents’ concerns about health impacts and continuing exposure are downplayed or brushed aside altogether, even by institutions that should be trustworthy.
A year after the nuclear catastrophe began, Shima’s daughter, already under periodic heart monitoring for an unrelated childhood condition which had now passed, had a benign bone tumor removed from her leg. Her daughter had trouble getting up in the morning and was diagnosed with a condition related to chronic fatigue syndrome. At this time, Shima also had her children examined by Fukushima Prefecture as part of the Fukushima Health Management Survey established by Fukushima Medical University to track health after the catastrophe began. When the prefecture examined Shima’s 11-year old daughter she was told there were no abnormalities. However, after a second examination, doctors from a different clinic found two thyroid cysts. Her 13-year old son had one cyst detected by the prefecture, but upon the second screening, also at a different facility, two were found.
Other families tell of inconsistent test results between Fukushima Prefecture exams and those conducted at other institutions. Shima relates how examinations varied at the different institutions with the prefecture examination taking a few seconds to a few minutes while the second clinic took more than 10 minutes. Such a short time will miss lesions that could lead to cancers, according to a doctor at the clinic who performed the reexaminations. The prefectural clinics authorized by FMU to conduct exams refuse to hand over personal medical data to the patient without a cumbersome request system and payment for materials reproduction, further stoking mistrust among exposed inhabitants.
Additionally, prefecture experts claim that thyroid cancers after Chernobyl didn’t appear until four or five years after exposure. They therefore conclude the circumstances will be the same for Fukushima, despite what appear to be increases in metastatic thyroid cancers. Shima has noticed the appearance of other rare types of cancers as well that are not receiving the attention that thyroid cancer has.
“Responsibility for the nuclear accident is neglected, and everything else is “self-responsibility”. “I know well…[t]he limits of decontamination.”
Akemi Shima and other residents feel abandoned; first because they were told it was safe to stay; and now because they are largely left with responsibility for cleaning up TEPCO’s radioactive legacy. If Date City residents want levels lower than 5 mSv/year, they have to do the cleanup themselves; despite the ICRP recommended 1 mSv per year level; and despite levels below 4 mSv being associated with increases in childhood cancers and impairment of neural development during pregnancy.
“Living in a radioactive environment requires you to be vigilant tirelessly, whether for shopping, eating, or drinking water, and evaluate the situation yourself to make choices. We had to make up our minds to accept an abnormal lifestyle so that we could continue to live our daily lives.”
Shima points out that even if short-lived radiocesium has completely decayed, the level of radioactivity is still 10 times what it was before the catastrophe. It will likely remain so for generations, as demonstrated by the radiological contamination from Chernobyl. Shima relates how even higher doses are dismissed by officials. They claim that those areas are passed through, not lived in. But these officials do not account for children playing in those areas.
“I believe that we were tossed in all directions and set against one another, so that the victims themselves would be unable to discuss the harm.” “Our lives are at a standstill. This suffering will continue.”
International radiation committees and national regulatory bodies are establishing recommendations that will make living with increased radiation exposure from nuclear disasters seem okay. In Japan, staying silent is encouraged. In the wake of the ongoing Fukushima disaster, the government of Japan has raised the radiation exposure limit from the ICRP-recommended 1 mSv per year to 20mSv per year. Japan has also been cutting payments to Fukushima refugees in a bid to force them to resettle the contaminated areas they initially left; and ICRP has hosted dialogues across the country (one was held in Date City) encouraging residents to live with radiation rather than leave, claiming such action is “resilient” and community-minded (kizuna).
International radiation committees are claiming health examinations of children cause stress and should only be conducted for thyroid exposures at certain doses. These doses are higher than those associated with disease. Despite claiming that living in a radioactive environment is extremely difficult, ICRP still encourages it.
In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency has released guidance allowing much larger environmental doses of man-made radiation with very little assurance when the exposures will cease. Women and children are not spared.
Living with radioactive contamination divides communities into those that want to raise awareness of the danger radioactivity poses, and those who do not want to discuss it for fear of social discrimination and ostracization. Akemi Shima’s lived experience, and her public testimonies about it, should serve as a warning to anyone living with a nuclear reactor in their midst.
The author would like to thank Norma Field, professor emerita, University of Chicago, for help with content, translation and communication.
Headline photo of Japanese children by Carlos Ebert, Creative Commons/Flickr.
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