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Reconstruction following the Great East Japan Earthquake

A Message to the Japanese People (July 30, 2013)

Fred A. Mettler Jr. MD, MPH.
Professor Emeritus and Clinical Professor at the Department of Radiology at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine
U.S. Representative, United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation Emeritus Commissioner, International Commission on Radiological Protection

When the Chernobyl catastrophe occurred in 1986, the Soviet Union and the international community looked for a highly-respected, honest, expert radiation scientist to lead an international independent comprehensive multi-year project to assess the accident causes, radioactive contamination, radiation doses and health effects. The person who was chosen as the best in the world was the late Dr. Itsuzo Shigematsu from the Radiation Effects Research Foundation in Hiroshima. I had the honor to be chosen by him as the leader for the Health Effects portion of the International Chernobyl Project. I immediately turned to my Japanese colleagues to be members of the health teams since they were unquestionably the best in the world. Many left their families and jobs and came to work with me in contaminated villages over a period of 2 years. The Sasagawa Foundation was also instrumental in the Chernobyl efforts. As a result, the world owed Japan a deep debt of gratitude. After the Fukushima accident and now, the international community of experts stands ready to assist our colleagues, friends and the Japanese people in any way we can.

The Fukushima accident was incredibly complicated by the much larger destruction and loss of life from the earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Even though, in retrospect, one can always find ways to improve, I do not think that any country in the world could have handled the issues any better or even as well.

The consequences of the accident are many including social, economic, psychological and medical. While evacuation and relocation have been, and continue to be very traumatic, there is no doubt that it avoided significant radiation doses to tens of thousands of people. Restriction and control of the food supply also was critical in avoiding health consequences. In contrast to Chernobyl, in spite of the major reactor damage and releases from the Fukushima plant, it is a credit to Japan, that with appropriate radiation protection, there have not been any acute radiation injuries or deaths.

The health risks from radiation exposure have been studied for over 100 years and are quite well-known. Current independent estimates by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Scientific Committee on Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) indicate that the risk of future cancer from the accident is very low although nobody can say a small risk does not exist.

Parents naturally are concerned about the potential harmful effects of radiation on their children. Children are more sensitive than adults for induction of some kind types of tumors (particularly thyroid cancer). The major hazard in this regard came from radioactive iodine which was released during the accident but which is no longer present. Examination and follow-up of children is being conducted on a large scale and parents should be assured that thyroid cancer (should it be found) is very curable. Such follow-up studies, unfortunately, often detect normal variation in tissues and this can pose a concern to parents. Care should continue to be taken regarding long-term exposure of children in areas that remain contaminated with cesium-137and the use of recommended annual public dose limits is appropriate.

People also worry about hereditary effects in future offspring born to parents who have been exposed to radiation. You should be reassured that many scientific studies have shown that this does not appear to happen in humans. The accident is not yet completely over. It remains crucial to have an expert assessment of contaminated areas before relocation of families and regarding decisions about the fate of large volumes of radioactive waste.

The Japanese people should take comfort in knowing that Japan has the world's foremost and dedicated physicians, radiation protection scientists and philanthropic foundations, who have already taken major steps and will continue to help. Their resources and extensive expertise will certainly continue to support persons and families affected by the Fukushima accident.

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