Tracking information on radiation health risks in Japan

by Andrew Maynard on March 16, 2011

This past few days I’ve been up to my eyeballs in tracking and responding to the developing crisis in Japan, and have not had much time to think about emerging technologies or this blog.  Much of my time has been spent on brushing up on my health physics (from 25 years ago!), and providing information on the Risk Science Blog.  But I thought this was a good time to take a bit of a breather and reflect on a few things that have struck me about over the past few days as I’ve been compiling and disseminating information on the Fukushima nuclear power plant crisis in particular.

Where are the US Schools of Public Health in providing information on health implications?

As events at the Fukushima power plant unfolded, I assumed – rather naively as it turns out – that Schools of Public Health across the United States would be mobilizing to provide expert analysis and advice on the health impacts of potential radiation releases.  But as a first port of call for information, I was sorely disappointed.

Of course, Universities across the country are making sure their experts are available for press interviews.  But if you are looking for informed and easily accessible information on what the situation means for the health of local residents and those further afield, including people living on the west coast of America, there is very little coming out of the top Schools of Public Health.

Yesterday, US News & World Report published its two-yearly ranking of US Graduate School Public Health programs.  Interested to see whether my initial impressions were wrong, I spent a few minutes this morning checking the top five US Schools of Public Health for information on the Fukishima crisis.  This is what I found:

1.  Johns Hopkins University

No clear links relating to the developing radiation public health crisis in Japan on the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health homepage.  A search on “Japan, radiation” brought up nothing of direct relevance.  The same was true for the main Johns Hopkins University website.

2.  University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill

Again, there were not clear links relating to the developing radiation public health crisis in Japan on the UNC Gillings School of Public Health homepage.  Similarly, a search for “Japan, radiation” brought up no obviously useful information.  On the UNC main homepage there is a clear link to a Japan Disaster Response web page, although information here on health impacts is extremely limited.

3.  Harvard University

The Harvard School of Public Health homepage has a link to a piece related to the radiation risks associated with Fukushima – this takes you to a news item about  interviews with a Harvard School of Public Health faculty alumnus and a faculty member in the Boston Globe and NPR.  A search on the School of Public Health site for “Japan radiation” does not reveal any other sources of information.  The main Harvard University website does link to a web portal addressing the aftermath of the earthquake.  And a search for “Japan, radiation” on the University website does lead to this article – but that’s it.

4.  University of Michigan

The University of Michigan School of Public Health homepage links to the blog piece I wrote on Sunday on understanding radiation exposure measurements.  However, as with other schools, a search on ‘Japan, radiation” brings up no useful links.  The School of Public Health Risk Science Center has reasonable links to resources addressing the human health implications of the crisis – but I only know that because I am in charge of them! On the main University of Michigan homepage there is a link to a U-M and the Crisis in Japan page, which provides access to useful University of Michigan-based information, including an interview with the University’s leading health physicist.

5.  Columbia University

The Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health homepage has a prominent link to an interview with a faculty member on the earthquake and its aftermath – but no mention of the nuclear power plant crisis.  A search on “Japan, radiation” returns no obvious sources of information.

Of course, there are other sources of information available on what is happening in Japan and its potential human health impacts.  But I would hope that the leading academic institutions that are researching, teaching and disseminating information on human health risks would have the capacity to respond to such a major incident.  Hopefully over time, they will.

Can Google get you to authoritative sources of information on the nuclear reactor crisis?

Over the past few days, I’ve carried out many Google searches around the general themes of Japan, health, risk and radiation.  What inevitably comes back is a long list of links to news articles, blogs and opinions.  But if you are looking for authoritative information on what is happening and what the implications are, or an accessible primer on nuclear power stations, radiation and health, you have a problem.  Because the noise of the chatter completely obliterates links to these type of sources!

Granted this may reflect my inability to use Google in a sufficiently sophisticated way, but the only way I have found of accessing information from experts and expert organizations is to either directly ask people what they would recommend, or to go to organizations that I already know about – such as CDC, WHO and the IAEA.

This worries me: who is working on filtering out the noise from internet searches when people need access to specific types of information sources – especially when the web is swamped by chatter on a hot topic?

Where is our sense of proportion over the human impacts of the earthquake and tsunami?

As I write this, I am reading news articles that indicate the confirmed number of dead following last week’s eathquake and tsunami is over 3,500, with the combined dead and missing count topping 11,000.  These figures don’t even begin to reflect the number of people severely impacted by the disaster.

This is a human health impact of tragic proportions, and one that is continuing to play out as more bodies are found.  Yet the news headlines and coverage are dominated by events surrounding the Fukushima nuclear power plant, rather than the broader impacts of the earthquake.

This is understandable – radiation evokes almost primal fears in people.  Yet even if we face the worst case scenario with radiation emissions from Fukushima, what magnitude of health impact are we looking at?  In the case of the world’s worst nuclear accident – Chernobyl – the the latest evaluation of health impacts from the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) indicates the number of people directly affected were in the thousands.  From the draft report’s conclusions:

  • The observed health effects currently attributable to radiation exposure are as follows:
  • 134 plant staff and emergency workers received high doses of radiation that resulted in acute radiation syndrome (ARS), many of whom also incurred skin injuries due to beta irradiation;
  • The high radiation doses proved fatal for 28 of these people;
  • While 19 ARS survivors have died up to 2006, their deaths have been for various reasons, and usually not associated with radiation exposure;
  • Skin injuries and radiation-induced cataracts are major impacts for the ARS survivors;
  • Other than this group of emergency workers, several hundred thousand people were involved in recovery operations, but to date, apart from indications of an increase in the incidence of leukaemia and cataracts among those who received higher doses, there is no evidence of health effects that can be attributed to radiation exposure;
  • The contamination of milk with 131I, for which prompt countermeasures were lacking, resulted in large doses to the thyroids of members of the general public; this led to a substantial fraction of the more than 6,000 thyroid cancers observed to date among people who were children or adolescents at the time of the accident (by 2005, 15 cases had proved fatal);
  • To date, there has been no persuasive evidence of any other health effect in the general population that can be attributed to radiation exposure.

Given the vast differences between the power plants at Chernobyl and Fukushima, the chances of a Chernobyl-like release of radioactive material in Japan are negligible – placing the worst case scenario of health impacts significantly below those observed in Russia.  Even assuming that the UNSCEAR analysis doesn’t capture long term impacts, it is hard to imagine that the health impacts of the Fukushima reactor crisis will come anywhere close to what has already been experienced more generally in the aftermath of the earthquake.

Which makes me wonder whether our obsession with the nuclear incident and what it might lead to is itself preventing us from responding adequately to the human tragedy which has already occurred.

Without a doubt, the nuclear crisis in Japan will have profound implications that echo down through the years – not only in terms of human health impact, but also economic and social impact.  It’s a developing situation that demands attention and clear analysis and action that is based on evidence.  My fear is that, despite tremendously easy access to information on what is happening, access to clear, informative and authoritative information is either lacking or is being lost in the noise.  And that this is going to make it increasingly difficult to respond effectively to the crisis, while continuing to respond to the more immediate aftermath of the earthquake.

1 Alex Gillen March 16, 2011 at 3:02 pm

Google has set up a page: Resources related to the 2011 Japan Crisis

I found it on MLibrary’s Japan Disaster Information research guide (after seeing the guide mentioned on Twitter). And it looks like Google now links to the resources on their homepage.

2 PF Anderson March 16, 2011 at 6:20 pm

I was also going to point out the Library LibGuide (I’ve contributed some content to it and know the librarians curating it). In addition, the School of Engineering has been pumping out videos on this topic like crazy, really helpful balanced informative pieces in their YouTube channel.

YouTube – Japan Nuclear Emergency: Experts from Univ. of Michigan Discuss Critical Issues
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J2MVcAZnowo

YouTube – The Nuclear Emergency in Japan: An Overview
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ztTiNcWTT54

3 Nina Veas March 17, 2011 at 7:25 am

I found some useful information in the Google Scholar with the search words “Japan radiation health risk”

4 Mike Rodewald March 17, 2011 at 5:51 pm

I must respectfully disagree. While I agree that it is useful for Google to centralize some information to cut through the noise (other commenters have pointed out that this is already happening). Providing expert analysis to news organizations is a more effective use of time for schools of public health than providing their own coverage would be. While I admire your enterprise, I don’t think many other people are trolling the websites of their local university for news on current events. Granted, outlets like newspapers and local news are prone to sensationalism, but they are still the primary and often only source of “news” for most people. And hopefully that sensationalism is tempered by input from experts at a school of public health.

5 Andrew Maynard March 18, 2011 at 4:43 pm
6 David Abramson April 5, 2011 at 3:10 pm

Thank you for highlighting both the potential utility of US schools of public health, and the inherent weakness of Google search algorithms! We at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness have contributed several key videos and trainings specific to radiological crises and the circumstances in Japan — including a 30-minute “primer” on nuclear power, radiological threats, the relative dangers from the Fukushima plants, and public health interventions; as well as a “Rad 101″ course designed for public health professionals. http://www.ncdp.mailman.columbia.edu/japanearthquake.html. These were posted by March 24th, and represent efforts at developing “Just-in-Time” training material.

7 Andrew Maynard April 6, 2011 at 6:29 am

Thanks for this link David (and Claudia below) – this is a very positive response, and one that I probably need to highlight in an update to this piece.

8 Claudia Wallis April 5, 2011 at 4:12 pm

I’d like to add to David Abramson’s message. We agree that there’s an important role for Schools of Public Health to play in informing the public–as well as their own students and community. At the Mailman School, we’ve had a lead story
http://bit.ly/goXIM6º on the radiation risk that was posted to our homepage on March 22 and updated on March 30. We’ve been active in getting our experts out to the press.
We also hosted an open event on March 22 that featured several presentations and a panel discussion of the radiation risks emanating from Japan, U.S. preparedness for such a calamity, among other issues.

9 Andrew Maynard April 6, 2011 at 12:21 pm

Quick update: I’ve posted updated information on updated activities associated with the five Schools of Public Health on the Japan nuclear crisis here: http://umrscblogs.org/2011/04/06/us-schools-of-public-health-address-the-impacts-of-the-japan-nuclear-crisis/

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