The Unperturbed vs. The Doubters.

After a couple of months of almost mainlining the news on the Fukushima nuclear crisis, I turned off. I made a conscious choice to stop reading the updates in details and to not get paranoid or worried; there’s only so much energy you can expend before you become exhausted. At that point, you have to decide whether to commit to the issue or not- and I simply wasn’t worried enough about the impact of radiation on my own health to remain constantly abreast of the daily developments.

It was the battle over the purported health risks of radiation that reawoke me to the issue. In one camp there’s the unperturbed, who believe that current food checks are sufficient, that atmospheric rates are low, and that the situation is now under control. The more extreme members of this group stray, at times, dangerously close to being apologists for the government, who have been less than transparent  in their handling of information and their response to the crisis. (Just one example that comes to mind is their failure to use SPEEDI or to inform the public of wind forecasts immediately after the crisis began.)

On the other side there’s the doubters. The milder among them are merely cynical, and the extreme verge on paranoia, refusing to believe any statistics released by the government or TEPCO, or even any optimistic forecast. The blog post I translated that said the bodies of 4300 TEPCO workers were being concealed would almost definitely fit into that group.

For the formers- let’s call them The Unperturbed- any attempt to publicise high levels of radioactivity in food is irrational, unnecessary hyperbole that will damage farmers’ livelihoods. The phrase used very commonly in the Japanese press is  “風評被害 (fuhyou-higai)”, or damaging rumours.

This phrase sends the other camp- let’s call them The Doubters- frothing at the mouth. After beef with levels of radioactive cesium above the government’s safe limit was sold across the nation, radioactive particles thought to have reached Hokkaido, most of it floating somewhere in the Pacific, 45% of children in Fukushima with cesium in their thyroid glands, a rice crop recently found to exceed safety standards… they find it obscene that someone can dismiss their fears, or even figures, as “rumours”.

Yet to The Unperturbed, food that is on sale is safe, whether it is from Fukushima, Iwate, Miyagi, etc. According to them, the masses of food that has been left unsold or thrown away because of these “rumours” is obscene- and unnecessary.

I would argue that the numerous visible holes in the safety checks, which have allowed contaminated food to go on sale, make people wary. It is impossible to check all the food on sale: simply waving a Geiger counter over food doesn’t cut it. It needs to be dehydrated and pulverised before being analysed, meaning that the process is quite laborious.

Moreover, in this case, is it better to safe than sorry? The Doubters say so. Time Out Tokyo had an interesting article about a group of mothers in Yokohama who are fighting to take food produced in the disaster areas off school menus. One, Toshiko Yasuda, attacked the idea that supporting the farmers was more important than children’s health:

‘I think it’s an awful national habit that we Japanese have. During the war, Japanese people would willingly sacrifice themselves if it was beneficial for the country. That was the norm, the virtue. That mentality lives on. The government has passed the buck to the people of Japan, saying, “Please eat the Fukushima vegetables. Poor Fukushima people. They need your help.” Yes, of course we have to help the industries and economy of Fukushima, but is it okay for our children to eat that produce, get sick and die young? Should we let them develop cancer? That’s a completely different argument.’ “

That said- what if the Doubters saw food being tested right in front of their eyes- would they still refuse to eat it? I’d guess no. Any amount of cesium is unacceptable to them, which is perhaps too extreme a stance. Bananas, after all, are radioactive. So is our natural environment. Getting on an airplane, getting an x-ray, living near rocks that contain radon.

Should we trust government safety levels? Despite Chernobyl, there’s no scientific precedent. Measuring was both more difficult and more lax in 1986; few clear causal relationships have been drawn up between “X amount of becquerels/kg = __% chance of cancer in later life”. It could be argued that it’s not worth taking any risks -but don’t we do that every day, living in an environment already full of fumes, pesticides, plastics… and dare I say it… cigarettes?

Where do we draw the line? I haven’t made my mind up yet.

7 responses to “The Unperturbed vs. The Doubters.”

  1. I fall, unapologetically into the later camp, ‘The Doubters’ if you will.
    Like you I stopped paying the obsessive attention I had been doing in the immediate aftermath some time a ago.
    My understanding of radiation has made a similar jump as it did from “When the wind blows” to the Chernobyl disaster and I feel informed to the point of overkill.
    The simple fact that makes me still unwilling to eat produce from the areas mentioned , despite having a lovely banana shake on that transatlantic flight last week on the way back from my full body x-ray is this:-
    The Japanese government are lying b$%stards (to be fair ALL governments are lying b%$stards) and Japanese corporations especially those of the cozy monopoly variety such as TEPCO are even worse (the practice of deceit is endemic – I have Olympus shares I’m giving away if anyone wants them:).
    The Japanese government and these companies care only about protecting the economy and little or nothing for the citizens (Minamata anyone?) they have/would/will sell their own grandmothers out if they thought there was an extra Yen in it.
    So, as I sit smoking a cigarette which will undoubtedly be the cause of my slow painful demise at least I am fully informed of the risk I am taking.
    The same most definitely cannot be said to be true of that lovely bonito sushimi and Fukushima tomato salad on the table.

  2. An excellent round-up of the opposing camps. I find myself with the cynical doubters. Can’t abide the say-nothings or the “we are at war” so must not spread doubt. This position was articulated to me recently on twitter. But then, my default position is if in doubt, let it all out. There’s plenty of doubt to go around.

  3. Thanks for your clear and balanced article that already has some thoughtful responses and I hope will bring more. I can well understand the worries and doubts of people with children living within the areas of most contamination and also of parents who worry about the reliability of official ‘reassurances’ that food from those areas is safe for their children’s short and long term health. People here have long had a healthy disregard for official and selected expert opinions that all is hunky dory (my loose trans. of ‘daijoubu’).

    The need for transparency and honest reporting of the facts of the levels and type of radiation released by this disaster is of paramount importance. The stress of anxieties and fear experienced over an unnaturally protracted period of time can also have negative effects on people’s mental and physical health. Doubting is undoubtedly good under the current circumstances and the uncertainties and worries of the good people of the Tohoku and other regions need to be addressed too. I am calmly waiting for the day when we can all be unperturbed by the continuing disaster the nuclear plant meltdowns has inflicted on the hearts and minds all of the people living in Japan through this time.

  4. It’s simple for me. I do not believe what TEPCO says even if they were proven to being telling the truth on at least one subject for the first time in the history of the universe. The government? Oh yea, one should never disbelieve the government, especially when it has been shown to have been wrong about nearly every statement made during and after the incident.

    I even know a couple, one works at METI and his wife an ex-NHK announcer who do not believe much of anything they have been told. Another METI acquaintance is more worried about the dangers of imported food should TPP pass. (He was very concerned about foreign media complaints about the government’s slowness on releasing information just after the disaster. Without irony he said “Should we release information even if we aren’t sure it is correct?” Another friend won’t eat seafood (!) because of fear of radiation. One Japanese friend returned to the US with her daughter despite having an ill mother. They thought the danger to girl was too much. On the other hand, one lady told me a few weeks ago that she trusts the supermarket to check for radiation. She is a rarity among those I know, but she has no young children which seems to strongly influence which camp people are in.

    I don’t spend every second worrying about radiation though. The biggest reason is that I have no children and there is little I can do anyway. I doubt we will know the full effects for decades.

    Too bad there are no Olympus ex-CEO Woodford types inside TEPCO or METI to expose everything to cleansing sunshine.

  5. As you witnessed on Twitter not too long ago, I had a discussion with someone on the topic of low dose radiation risks and despite my best efforts, the person in question got very upset. This is a very sensitive issue.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if you and others class me as one of “the unperturbed” given the discussion I mentioned and my posts on Twitter. However, I have a son who was only 3 months old when the problems started and he is now 10 months old. Nothing means more to me than his health and well being and I feel like “unperturbed” doesn’t describe my demeanor well at all.

    Please believe me then when I say I would naturally be a “doubter” given this situation. However, every time I investigate an alarming headline or a concerning article, I find that the content of the article never justifies the alarm and panic that comes with it. And frankly, it leaves me quite annoyed. Let’s take one of the articles that you linked to about 45% of children having cesium in their thyroids. If you actually read the article, you see that the largest dose absorbed was 0.1 microsieverts per hour, found in one child. However, the doctors judged that this level didn’t warrant further investigation. No further tests, no treatment, not even for this child with the highest dose.

    With this issue, as with many other complicated issues, I try to listen almost exclusively to the scientific community. I think that if you were forced to place the scientific community in one of the camps that you describe, I think they would find themselves in the “unperturbed” camp, simply because they spend a lot of time trying to spread knowledge that reassures rather than alarms.

    Note that this is the opposite of the climate change problem, where scientists are screaming at the public, politicians and everyone but no one does anything.

    On Twitter there are a few good scientists to follow. For example, I would recommend @pkanzug, a radiologist who gained a large following after providing information on the thyroid question.

  6. Small, but significant point. In the article you cited, 45% of Fukushima children do NOT have Cesium in their thyroids – they have been exposed to radioactive particles. It is most likely they have (had) radioactive iodine in their thyroids, as that is the most common form of uptake of radioactive particles in the thyroid. Iodine-131 has a half life of 8 days, which means that right now the thyroid glands of the affected children is free of ionizing particles. Cesium-137 (the more dangerous form of radioactive cesium) has a half life of 30 years, meaning it will be around for a very long time. Cesium-135, which is less radioactive, has a half life of over 2.3 million years. Both forms of cesium are presently being detected in the affected areas of Fukushima in quantities that should raise high concern, and elsewhere in Japan in much lower quantities.

  7. Thank you Jimbo for pointing out a vital point, and a huge oversight on my part. I would correct the post but your comment would no longer make sense- I may add an edit.

    Could you explain why cesium-137 is the “more dangerous” form, by the way? I’m not sure I’ve heard that before. The following post- Minami Soma- quotes one woman who told me (and showed me statistics to the same effect) that the ratio of cesium 134 to 137 is very different to Chernobyl, and is in fact favourable, with the amount of two-year-half-life 134 many times more than 137 (7:2 was the ratio she told me). Have you heard that?

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