Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Protecting children from radiation - lessons from Fukushima

Managing long-term risk and minimising children's exposure to radiation

Please note: I am not an expert - this informally covers some of the ideas being shared by families living in Fukushima at the time of the disaster for your information. I have written it as I could not find anything similar when I really needed it. It does not cover the first days of a nuclear emergency. It is written from the point of view of minimising risk to be on the safe side, not an from an assumption that we can know definitely either way what that risk is in the current scientific climate.

We, like most families who were, or are living in Fukushima, have been trying to understand how to minimise the risk for our children. Contamination is something children in affected areas of Japan will have to live with throughout their development, and we may not know the consequences until 20 or 30 years later.

There is agreement that unborn foetuses, children and young people and especially females are more at risk. However there is no scientific consensus on long-term risk from accumulations of low doses and there are acknowledged holes in research and knowledge. The nuclear industry, government, regulatory bodies and their tame 'experts' and advisers have displayed blatant collusion and dishonesty, destroying trust. Research is expensive and there are big gaps in our knowledge in consequence. Guidance and planning is very patchy, including some glaring omissions and irresponsibly risky assumptions motivated by minimising compensation and clean-up costs. There have been examples of false reporting of levels in soil and food, the false labelling of food from contaminated  areas as being from safe areas, and the mixing of  food with high levels with food with low levels to produce a batch with overall 'acceptable' levels.

As parents we have to make own judgements and if concerned it makes sense to try and minimise our children's lifetime exposure, just as we think carefully about risk from crossing the road, unhealthy diet, or passive smoking. For your information, here are some of the solutions that parents in Fukushima and beyond are sharing with eachother:

Food and drink

  • Avoid giving children food or drink from any contaminated region with a wide margin of safety.
  • Some foods are particularly susceptible to contamination (bio-availability). Wild food, especially mushrooms, berries and vegetables gathered in the mountains have been found with especially high levels and are best avoided. As at August 2012 the highest officially tested level was wild mushrooms picked in Nikko City area, Tochigi Prefecture, at 31,000bq/kg - the official 'safe' limit is currently 100bq/kg. The previous record was wild mushrooms from Fukushima at 28,000bq/kg
  • Check the origin of everything before buying. With products with mixed ingredients where the origin is not marked this means contacting the company concerned. Ask them where their factories are and if the factories have handled produce from contaminated areas. Do they check their production themselves? If they won't tell you, don't buy from them. The same applies to eating out - contact the company and ask where they source their products. If they won't tell you, don't eat there. Many families in Japan now do this.
  • Campaign for school meals and milk to be sourced from safer areas. Until they are insist on your child eating a lunch brought from home - some schools may be resistant to this. Be aware that some schools may check the ingredients, but the minimum detection level of the equipment is too high, for example 20Bq/kg - below this may give as a false zero. Even away from contaminated areas this is an issue - for example, Fukushima rice was provided in an Okinawa school.

Checking levels and gathering information

  • Buy a dosimeter / Geiger counter, ensuring that it can detect various kinds of radiation, and learn how to use it properly. This is necessary because the government will never test everywhere, and hotspots have been found by individuals. Check inside and outside your house. Typical areas of higher radiation are drains and water-courses, where rain falls from roofs, and in gardens where contamination can be blown or washed in from surrounding areas in the form of dust, leaves or other organic material.
  • Note that levels can increase over time in some locations due to the interaction of weather, landscape, and biological processes. Therefore re-testing will be necessary for the foreseeable future. Areas that have been decontaminated can become re-contaminated.
  • Regularly check official information- but informally shared information and information from abroad is also vital - in the Japanese situation the latter two have often been more reliable. For example radiation prediction weather maps from Germany and later Switzerland were invaluable and information shared between citizens via Twitter and Facebook. 
  • Think for yourself, don't assume that the attitudes displayed around you are the right ones for your family (or are even what people are thinking privately). Only you can decide what is right for your children.

Location, housing and play

  • If possible move your children away permanently to a less contaminated area. This the number one and only sure solution. Careers, family tradition and owning property are important - but if our children get sick we suddenly realise that our children's health comes first.
  • If you can't move away yet, take children away at weekends and holidays. Research possible resources and help for moving away in case it becomes possible to move.
  • Check the weather forecast - if the wind is blowing from the accident site don't let them play outside. While air radiation levels are high, keep children inside, especially  when it is raining.
  • Check air and soil levels anywhere your children spend significant time, especially at school and routes to school. Insist that schools are decontaminated, or if possible change school.
  • Note that decontamination has had limited temporary results, with levels rising again. It is not a long term answer and can be dangerous for those doing it, often by hand - and where does the material go?
  • Minimise the chance of children inhaling radioactive particles in dust. Don't allow them to play in  dusty areas. Get them to wear a suitable mask if they are inevitably exposed to dust.
  • Inform children how to protect themselves - thinking about where to avoid (eg drains, ditches and under roof edges), washing routines when coming inside and changing clothes for inside.

X-rays and medical treatment

  • Avoid unnecessary x-rays. Some parents are asking that only essential x-rays are done, although this will be a matter of discussion with the doctor or dentist concerned. Japan has one of the highest uses of medical x-rays in the world, and sometimes they are done as a matter of routine or habit even before a physical examination has suggested that one is needed. Clearly there are cases when x-rays are essential and the benefits outweigh other concerns.
  • A Japanese doctor has written a letter intended for those treated abroad to give to their medical practitioner - however it contains a useful summary of the medical situation of Japanese children exposed to radiation from Fukushima Daichi. This will give you a sense of the subject should your own family be at risk.  Click here.
This list is not definitive and arguments can be made for and against each point, however I hope reading what Japanese families are doing helps you with your thinking should you be unfortunate enough to have to deal with this problem, or feel you should prepare just in case if you live down-wind from a nuclear facility.

    Sunday, 29 January 2012

    After the flood - volunteers and friendship

    One of the volunteers dispensing cold drinks and towels for tired volunteers

    A very big thank you to everyone who came to help clear up in the days and weeks following the flood in Kaneyama-machi at the end of July 2011. It was very touching to see so many people working together in adversity - but then don't they always? Many came long distances from around Japan. Some travelled long hours from where they had been helping with tsunami debris. We even had volunteers who were residents of the tsunami hit areas who wanted to repay the fact that we had been volunteering in their area of Fukushima over the last three months. The tasks they undertook were usually unpleasant and tough jobs like digging out mud from between floorboards and cleaning household goods of mud, or digging out drains. It was good to be part of this culture-changing volunteer movement, with people realising, sometimes for the first time, what pleasure and satisfaction is to be had when you reach out beyond the bounds of your own life.

    UK volunteers who travelled a long way from working in a tsunami-hit area
    The first job was to empty the houses of the chaos of ruined furniture and tatami mats and a deep layer of mud. This was hard and filthy, and was done before any volunteers arrived from outside. The next part was to take up the flooring on everyone's ground floor and dig out the mud underneath. This had to be done as if left it would rot the wooden floors and bacteria in it might cause health problems. The underfloor areas were then sprinkled with white powder, which may have been caustic soda as it burned my skin, the fine powder settling on sweating arms and rubbing at the edges of gloves.

    The hardest job - very awkward and dirty
    Digging the mud out was heavy work, as it was wet, like cocoa butter or damp clay, and it was hard to manoeuvre between the floor joists. It then had to be carried outside and either piled up  or put in bags for later collection. Whoever has the contract for those bags will have made millions in Tohoku - they are used everywhere.

    Fancy a go? Our kitchen, and no, that is not my cooking

    Our first two volunteers were locals, members of the All Okuaizu Network
    We had volunteer help from the first day. Many of the older people had family who answered the call until outsiders arrived, and my wife's uncle (our landlord), and her cousin got stuck in. We also had two guys from the All Okuaizu Network which was founded locally to respond to the 3.11 disaster and to help develop Okuaizu in the long term. We are members and I had been over to the coast near Iwaki-shi with them a couple of times to work on the tsunami damaged area just outside the nuclear evacuation zone, never thinking I'd need the same help in a few weeks.  One brought us a fridge to borrow, and he advised me not to worry about others until our house was done. This was a kind thought as I felt that I should be helping the oldest people first, and I also felt very bad that I was away volunteering at Fuji Rock in Niigata (also flooded) as part of my Strong Children art project with Fukushima's children, and couldn't get home to help until the second day.  They both worked hard to help get the mud out before moving on to the next house, and continued day after day.

    What's that saying? Something about a creek and a paddle?

    One of our neighbours surveying progress
    People from Okuaizu are very physically strong and resilient from generations of hard work in difficult terrain and heavy snow in the winter. They are used to helping each other anyway, and can keep going when city folk would be keeling over, and they got through a prodigious amount of spadework and lifting. Some who had escaped the flood neglected their own businesses and households over weeks in order to help the older people to get their houses into at least a temporary liveable state, as many had no usable kitchen, bathroom or toilet. It was exhausting work.

    The council used systems already set up to support nuclear evacuees in the previous months to send round portable stoves, instant rice and noodles, bottles of water and basic hygiene equipment, and began assessing damage and people's needs. Council workers concentrated on the public infrastructure. I remember thinking how much worse it would be for it to happen somewhere very poor without organised help - and since it happened there have been far worse floods in various places around the world where people have to fend for themselves for weeks. 

    As floors were cleared, ripped up, dug out and disinfected,  upper floors were re-arranged for camping in, with various make shift arrangements and use of unaffected neighbours' facilities. The next phase was salvaging as much as possible, which wasn't much, and cleaning it all several times.

    Two of my son's school staff pitch in to help clean our stuff
    Dust became a worrying problem as everything dried out and the heat returned with a vengeance
    There was no let up for affected households as it was very  time-consuming, and when you look at piles of your stuff covered in mud you just feel like you have to keep going every minute until it is done, otherwise when will life get back to normal? No-one anywhere likes their home and possessions despoiled, but the fact that Japanese people fastidiously preserve a complete separation between 'inside' and 'outside' made it all the harder as a taboo had been broken too. People's concentration began to suffer in the heat and there were several injuries, and people began to get more and more tired. We were all a bit dazed, especially on top of the underlying tension there had been for the previous months because of Fukushima Daichi. What a year.

    The cavalry arrived after a week or so in the form of hundreds of people from across Japan, organised into teams and allotted tasks by a volunteer centre set up in a nearby village. Everybody knew the drill as most had already volunteered somewhere else in Tohoku.

    Volunteer squad from further afield
    Various vans providing refreshments and good cheer were doing the rounds, and the spirit between everybody was pretty special, people couldn't do enough. This will be one of the great positive legacies of the 3.11 tragedy for Japan, and it will be interesting to see how all these shared experiences based on volunteering affect society over the next few years. It changes you.

    Some of our stuff headed for the tip
    Watching possessions that you have allowed to become part of your identity disappearing into a dump truck changes you too. It is a timely reminder about priorities and life's temporary bargains with chaos. Now, every time I buy something I just think "Yes, more dump filler." What really matters? It was difficult watching everyone breathing in the billowing dust that we know contains  a certain amount of caesium 137. There was no way of keeping it out, and you can't keep clean either. As I write in January 2012 the government's controversial policy of 'decontamination' rather than evacuation means that thousands of workers and volunteers will be going through this same process: handling debris, soil, leaves and mud, and breathing dust in areas of eastern Fukushima with substantial levels of radiation. There is evidence that it won't even work sufficiently well, and we won't know for years what the health impacts will be. In the meantime fathers, daughters, sons and brothers will be risking their health - and to me that really matters.

    The way friends rallied round was a great comfort in this time uncertainty and worry. At least our son was away from the dust being looked after for several weeks by the Ichikawas, parents of one of his school friends - so kind! At a time when there was a bit of family pressure about what should be done, in what priority order,  and exactly how it should be done (you know how that goes...), at least my friends turned up to help in any way they could. Like Iwata-san, Tokyo-based museum producer and cyclist, who gave up his weekend in the middle of a project rescuing and cataloguing the collection of Sendai museum. He looked cool in his rescue duds! And Shigemura-san, local friend, fellow cyclist and good egg who likes nothing better than helping, even on an ordinary day. They helped clear the debris-filled garden and did some cleaning up.

    Iwata-san and Shigemura-san: heavy lifting and washing up a specialty
    Then there was Yoshida-san, another friend from Arai cycling club 250km away in Saitama who gave me a weekend of his time in the big push to get what was left of the house perfectly clean after everything had been taken out ready for our move to Kansai. Not the most interesting or rewarding form of volunteering, not much to see for your effort compared to digging mud or moving wreckage, but he did it with a will and was good company. And Abé-san at the garage, who helped trying to find us a roof-rack and wouldn't take payment as usual. Useful though everyone's practical help was, the most important thing was the feeling that they had gone out of their way just out of simple friendship. They were just there. This was something else that really mattered to me.

    So to everyone I say again, thank you. It was great to be a part of it, and I will remember as long as my memory lasts.