Frightened to return: A Fukushima father's story

Rates of thyroid problems in children near the nuclear plant are high

Like most fathers, Yoji Fujimoto frets about the health of his young children. In addition to normal parental concerns about the food they eat, the air they breathe and the environment they will inherit, however, he must add one more: the radioactive fallout from a nuclear disaster.

Three days after meltdown began at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant on 11 March 2011, Mr Fujimoto moved his two daughters, then aged four and three, to safety hundreds of kilometres away. Last December, the eldest of the two was diagnosed with adenoidal cysts, the prelude to a type of cancer that often strikes the salivary glands. "I was told by the doctor that it's very rare," he says.

Although Mr Fujimoto and his family were in Chiba Prefecture, over 60 miles (100km) from the plant and in the opposite direction from the worst of the fallout, he believes his daughter inhaled enough radiation to cause her illness. "I'm convinced this is because of the Fukushima accident."

The United Nations said last week it did not expect to see elevated rates of cancer from Fukushima, but recommended continued monitoring. The report by the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation said prompt evacuation meant the dose inhaled by most people was low. Tokyo Electric Power Co, operator of the Daiichi plant, estimates the final tally for escaped radiation at 900,000 terabecquerels, about one-fifth the amount released by the Chernobyl accident in 1986. Most was vented in the first three weeks.

The precise impact of this radiation is bitterly contested, but at least one finding from Chernobyl seems consistent – elevated rates of thyroid cancer in children. The Chernobyl Forum, a 2003-05 UN-led study, cited close to 5,000 cases of thyroid cancers among those exposed under the age of 18 in the most affected areas, probably from drinking contaminated milk. Many scientists believe it takes four to five years for the cancers to develop.

Although rumours of a spike in cancers, birth defects and abnormalities have swirled in the quarter of a century since Chernobyl, the UN found "no clearly demonstrated" rise in other cancers among affected populations. But that assessment has been questioned. "There is extensive documentation of other effects," says Steve Wing, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina.

Dr Wing accepts that estimating the number of Chernobyl-induced cancers with any precision is not possible, "in large part because of a lack of monitoring of the radiation doses to downwind populations", and because cancer estimates are largely based on "highly flawed" studies of A-bomb survivors.

But he says that parents like Mr Fujimoto do have reason to worry. "We know that doses to populations are both unquantified by the official agencies, that evidence suggests relatively high doses, and that children and women are more vulnerable to radiation. So the questions and deep concerns for the people in Fukushima will continue for the rest of their lives."

That assessment is backed by Dr Alexey Yablokov, a Russian biologist who published Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment, probably the most controversial assessment of the disaster. He was in Japan last week to promote the Japanese translation of the book, which insists that the health impact of Chernobyl has been seriously underestimated. He didn't soften his message for his audience in Tokyo. "I expect a growth in the numbers of thyroid cancers in Japan from next year," he said. Critics say one problem with Chernobyl research is that the then Soviet government initially tried to play down the disaster, skewing the statistics. The government of Fukushima Prefecture has promised lifelong health checks for 360,000 people who were under 18 at the time of the disaster.

In February, the government said it had found just three cases of thyroid cancer after checking 38,000 people, a figure Shinichi Suzuki, professor of thyroid surgery at Fukushima Medical University, said was statistically insignificant. "It's difficult to imagine that there is a relationship between the cancer and the nuclear accident," he said, to widespread scorn from parents.

Kanako Nishitaka, a single mother of two, says many have no faith in government surveys. She was born and raised in Fukushima city, about 40 miles from the nuclear plant, but moved away in May 2011 after doctors found caesium in her daughter, Fuu's, body. "I was told it was about the same amount as people exposed to nuclear bomb tests," she recalls. "The scientists who do these surveys tell us to move back home, but I wonder if they would take their own children to Fukushima?"

Many parents point to a recent finding that more than 40 per cent of nearly 95,000 children checked by Dr Suzuki's team had thyroid ultrasound "abnormalities". About 35 per cent had nodules or cysts on their thyroids. Most of the children lived in the most contaminated zone around Daiichi plant.

The cysts and nodules are not cancers but they point to an inevitable spike in future health problems, says Mr Fujimoto – a view contested by the government. "I have absolutely no faith in what the Fukushima government is saying," he retorts. "They want people to go back and live there so they clearly want to keep a lid on the impact of the disaster."

Parents accuse government scientists of making their minds up before the survey began – Professor Suzuki's team said last July that their aim was "to calm the anxiety of the population".

The debate has hardened into two sides: people such as Mr Fujimoto who say the authorities are playing down or even covering up the disaster, and the increasingly vocal official view that their worries are overblown. Those who stray too far from the official line risk being accused of fear-mongering.

Whatever the scientists say, Mr Fujimoto insists he won't be persuaded by government reassurances that it is safe to return to Fukushima. "There is so much information not getting out at the moment. It will be too late for my children when it is eventually released."

News
peopleChildren leave in tears as Santa is caught smoking and drinking
Arts and Entertainment
A host of big name acts recorded 'Do They Know It's Christmas?' in London on Saturday
musicCharity single tops chart
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Backshall has become the eighth celebrity to leave Strictly Come Dancing
tv
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
tvStrictly presenter returns to screens after Halloween accident
News
peopleFormer civil rights activist who was jailed for smoking crack cocaine has died aged 78
News
i100
News
Boxing promoter Kellie Maloney, formerly known as Frank Maloney, entered the 2014 Celebrity Big Brother house
people
Sport
Dwight Gayle (left) celebrates making it 1-1 with Crystal Palace captain Mile Jedinak
premier leagueReds falter to humbling defeat
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Solicitor NQ+ Oxford

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: CORPORATE - Corporate Solicitor NQ+ An excelle...

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Shopfitter

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a successful an...

Day In a Page

Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin