On March 11th 2011, the world witnessed the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that devastated the nation of Japan. We watched in fear and worry as a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, one of the five most powerful in the world since 1900, shook the land and triggered a tsunami that travelled up to 6 miles inland, destroying infrastructure, buildings, and houses. A third disaster, the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant complex, presents an ongoing major threat of leaking radiation from the damaged nuclear power plant. The government set a 12-mile ring around the nuclear plant, declaring the area to be a no-go zone, displacing approximately 100,000 people. Even families in the surrounding towns outside of this exclusion zone fled to distant parts of Japan, wary of the radiation still leaking from the now-closed plant. However, many families decided to stay, out of reluctance to stray too far from their homes or from a lack of financial ability to do so.
The invisible menace of the radiation in the air, dust, and water presents a constant threat to the residents of Minamisoma, a town outside the 16-mile exclusion zone. The annual exposure to radiation in these nearby towns is from 20-50 millisieverts, the yearly occupational exposure limit for nuclear workers. The radiation is not immediately fatal, but could show up as cancer or other illnesses years later. People living in these zones are under orders to stay indoors away from the radioactive particles floating in the air, and have been warned about the high levels of radioactive iodine in the rain. They have taken measures to reduce the level of radiation they are exposed to on a daily basis; this includes consuming foods that were not grown near the region, drinking only bottled water, avoiding radiation “hot spots” such as around gutters and foliage, and self-monitoring the radiation levels in the streets using hand-held Geiger counters. Nevertheless, children are attending school as before the disaster and people are moving around outdoors.
Families live in constant fear, which stems from the collective uncertainty and the conflicting opinions from authority figures about what is and is not safe. The effects of long term radiation exposure are especially dangerous for children because they are susceptible to an increased risk of thyroid cancer when exposed to radioactive iodine and no one can set a level of exposure that is considered “safe”. The question remains: are these children safe? In their everyday lives, they are subject to radioactivity in foods such as vegetables or animals that were grown and raised in the region. The radioactive dust they breathe contain trace amounts of cesium, which collects in the bones and can lead to various forms of leukemia or bone cancer. Because the risk is cumulative and radioactivity can build up in one’s body for years, no one can make any final conclusions about the harmful effects of exposure to daily radiation in these children. In an effort to track the long-term health effects in children, Japan began a survey of local children for thyroid abnormalities in October 2011. It studies 360,000 children and will track their health through their lifetime.
Amidst the ongoing protests about the dangers and disadvantages of nuclear power, there is a need to pay attention to the health of the children living just outside of the exclusion zone. Careful monitoring of the radiation levels in the surroundings and supervision of the health of the children are important steps to preventing and treating disorders related to long-term radiation.
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