Friday, March 18, 2011

Radiation Threat Overblown?

Nagasaki survivor not worried about radiation from nuclear power plants.
(Reuters) Kazuko Yamashita was five when the atom bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, destroying her home in a second and leaving her with a lifelong fear that every time she becomes ill, this time it is finally cancer.

Now, 66 years later, she wears a dark pink sweater, her dyed hair in a neat bob, and waits out Japan's current nuclear crisis in her daughter's Tokyo home, a two-storey house she also shares with her two granddaughters who play on a sofa behind her.

"I may be a bit too callous about this due to the fact that I was really heavily exposed to radiation, but I don't think this is anything to turn pale over," she told Reuters.

"People seem to be much too sensitive, though of course it's not really for me to say, and heavy radiation exposure is a serious thing. But I was 3.6 km (2.2 miles) from the bomb, and they've evacuated for 20 km (around the stricken nuclear plant). I really don't understand this kind of feeling."

Almost a week since massive earthquake and tsunami triggered the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, 240 km north of Tokyo, many foreigners and tourists have fled the country and rolling blackouts and radiation fears have gripped the capital.

Yamashita says she is not taking the situation lightly, even if she laments conflicting, overly alarmist news coverage.

...Yamashita suffers from diabetes, thyroid issues and osteoporosis, which she attributes to the atom bomb that fell on her native city at the end of World War Two.
I am pre-diabetic and have the thyroid condition called Hashimoto's, and the reason I had my thyroid checked was because I was exposed to radiation as a child. It's hard to know if there is a connection, however. I transcribe medical notes and have the impression that many people around my age (69 next month) have these conditions. A sedentary life while continuing to eat as if we lived the way our very active great grandparents lived accounts easily enough for diabetes, and I don't know the explanation for thyroid problems but they seem to be fairly common in the medical reports of people in my age range quite apart from exposure to radiation.

I grew up in Nevada a couple hundred miles from the Yucca Flats bomb tests in the fifties, certainly much farther away than Kazuko Yamashita from the Nagasaki bomb. I remember my grade school class being taken to a hill outside of town to get a good view of one of the bombs, probably the first one in 1951. We were told to cover our eyes for the flash and then we could look to see the mushroom cloud. I don't know when anxiety about radiation took hold but eventually there was at least as much fear as eagerness to watch the bombs.

As the tests went on over the years we began to get three-and-four-yolked eggs from chickens in the fallout zone. We merely marveled at them, had no problem eating them. A truck load of cattle came through once in which the animals were clearly suffering from radiation sickness, could hardly stand up, some even sloughing their hides. My father told us to stay away from the truck, but my brother couldn't resist getting closer and he's the one who remembers all that. He remembers the truck driver poking them with electrified prods to make them stand up to keep them alive long enough to sell them for meat, not wanting to lose a sale. I have to suppose they came from an area much closer to the test site. I have no idea what the effect of eating that meat might have been. The truck eventually went on through town so who knows who ended up with the meat if anybody did buy it.

But there was also fallout all over the desert surrounding our town, enough to register on geiger counters at least, although we weren't in the known path of fallout. For a while there were fortune hunters in town carrying geiger counters, thinking they had found uranium. Some had even staked "claims" to some supposed lode or other out in the desert. That all came to a sudden end when it became generally known that they were only detecting fallout.

So apparently I was exposed to some degree of radiation during those years, yet as far as I know I can't attribute any medical problems to it. My brother and sister have no problems whatever that could be attributed to it. There was one case of leukemia in our town in those years and that might have been the result of the tests, but there's no way to know. It was only one case.

So I agree with Mrs. Yamashita that the problems they are having with the nuclear power plants aren't as big a deal as some are making them out to be. Of course radiation IS serious and radiation CAN kill people, but this scare is out of proportion for anyone miles from the plants. She was only two miles from the Nagasaki bomb, I was a couple hundred miles from dozens of bomb tests in Nevada, California is across an ocean from Japan. The worries are overblown. They once said radiation could poison an area for thousands of years, but now Hiroshima and Nagasaki are both thriving cities.

Not to play it down, just to try to find a realistic level of concern.

OOPS. Update, April 15:

Talked to my brother. Conversation rambled from the longevity -- or lack of it -- of various family members to smokers in the family to his saying that the chronic cough we all knew he had as a teenager, that a doctor later told him was from TB, wasn't from TB at all, as another doctor told him after that. He had no signs of ever having had TB, but he had had a ferocious cough that prevented him from participating in PE in high school. I never knew that. We weren't a very communicative family in those days. And it lasted into his twenties, compounded of course by his being a smoker in those years. But that kind of persistent cough he found out is a common symptom of radiation sickness. It lasted from about age 10 into his early 20s and then went away completely. No cancer, in fact no diagnosis at all, just the cough, a very heavy cough.

So I have to change my statement that my brother and sister have shown no symptoms of having been affected by the bomb tests. He was exposed more than any of the rest of us, because he liked to go with our father whenever he drove any distance out into the desert as part of his job. Whether our father was affected or not I don't know. Both our parents died relatively young - in their sixties -- of heart problems.

Now I'll have to ask my sister if she's ever had any symptoms she attributes to the bomb tests.