Saturday 10 March 2012

Expert Advice

Went to an evening of  lectures  last night organised by one of the big hospitals here. Lecture titles:  'How Chronic Low Dose Radiation affects Health', 'Fukushima in 2030' and 'Neurosurgery in the 21st century'. Thought there'd be 20 people there but there were 2,000! Just shows how people want answers to the big question -  the long term effects of radiation on our health.

First up was Professor Nakamura Hironobu of Osaka University. He ran through the basics of radiation. That there is no proven increase in the risk of cancer under 100 mSv and then that is for a single dose. The risk for the same dose over a long period is not known (estimates are from half to one-tenth) but the body has the capacity to repair itself.  He gave lots of examples of studies all showing that low doses do not increase the risk of cancer.

New to me was the mechanism of radiation on the body. The lecturer said, and I have no knowlege of chemistry so forgive my bad explanation, that since most of the body is made of water, when radiation hits H2O one hydrogen molecule is split off leaving a hydroxyl radical (H and O) which is  harmless. The odds on radiation hitting the DNA are slight but these free radicals can hit and cause slight damage to DNA though it's repaired within 2 days.

Another interesting piece of information was that internal exposure (内部被 naibu hibaku )is less dangerous than external. Caesium 137 that's not excreted takes 50 years to disappear but all that time the body is repairing itself. If you had 1,000 bq in your food for the year (and according to Asahi Shimbun of 19 January the average in Fukushima is 4bq/day), it would be equivalent to 0.013 mSv for an adult and 0.021 mSv for a child which would waste away over 50 years so the effect on health would be negligible. If this is true it needs to be more widely known as people here think internal exposure is more dangerous.

His conclusion was that other factors such as smoking (cause of 30% of cancers), food (another 35%) and genetic factors (13%) are far more likely to cause cancer. Radiation is a small slice in the pie chart along with food additives, stress, asbestos etc. In Japan today 1 in 2 men die of cancer and 2 out of 3 women so we'll probably never know if the nuclear accident here caused  extra deaths.

Next speaker was Dr Yamaguchi Kazuyuki, Member of the Upper House who sits on the Committee for the Recovery. An energetic man in his 50's, he showed us two videos. The first showed the many people around the world who helped a year ago: the US Army in Operation Tomodachi, international  rescue workers, and those who raised funds. The message of the video was 'Arigato', thank you, but he wanted us to know that we owe it to people around the world to rebuild the Tohoku Region.

Next he showed us a promotion video of Jeju. I'd never heard of Jeju but it's an island in the Japan Sea which the Korean government is promoting as a brand new high tech city. Yamaguchi says we need to have something similar here. His suggestions: high tech medical and welfare (Medical Valley), lithium batteries and solar, Agribusiness, smart towns for the elderly, anime industry, medical tourism.

He says that on a composite ranking (employment, health, education etc), Fukushima ranks 27th out of Japan's 47 prefectures. Let's be No. 1 he says. Stop smoking, exercise, eat well! Let's make Fukushima have the least cancer in Japan! He's got everyone enthused.  Applause.

Final speaker was charismatic Professor Fukushima Takanori from Duke University, North Carolina. I hadn't realised but he's a very famous surgeon, nicknamed the 'Hand of God' who's performed tens of thousands of operations. Again he played down the dangers of radiation. Says we're OK. If you're in hospital for 3 months with a stroke you'll probably get 40 mSv from all the scans you get, he said. And modern machines are not dangerous. You'll get no radiation from an MRI scan on a new machine. Jokingly he said, ask the hospital how much the machine cost. The more expensive it is the safer it is! Then he went on to show us slides of operations he'd done. Apart from tumours, he's done operations on the brain to cure infertility  (in women), and a disease which makes the skin a dark colour. Amazing.

He ended up with a plug for the hospital hosting the event, Minami Tohoku Byoin in Koriyama and its director Watanabe Kazuo. He says it's the only hospital in the world which has all four state of the art machines for neurosurgery (gamma knife and three others).

So just before eight, 2,000 people spilled out onto Sakura-dori. Hungry, we'd been there since before five, but energised by people with a vision for the future.
We need to hear more from people like this, people with the vision (and the money) to shape the future.

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