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.