Sunday 3 February 2013

Post Health Check Musing

Hi folks,
I had my over 40's health check yesterday. In this country all employers are obliged by law to give staff a basic health screening once a year (this includes a chest X-ray) and then there are extra checks to prevent against so-called 'lifestyle diseases' (生活習慣病 seikatsu shuukanbyo). This is the one I've been putting off as I didn't want extra radiation. I asked the nurse how much radiation I was getting with the mammogram and she replied chirpily, 'Oh, about the same as a flight to Europe'. But I reckon that with the chest X-ray, barium meal and 2-image mammogram, I clocked about 3 mSv. In one day. That's three times what the health survey calculated I'd got in the four months following the disaster.

Funny old world. The city of Koriyama at vast expense is decontaminating houses to get levels down to 1 mSv/year in an attempt to stem the flow of people leaving and people get really twitchy if there's any radiation in their food yet no one thinks twice about medical imaging. I guess it's a question of trust. We trust the medical profession but because of the history of nuclear - the atom bomb and fishing ship that got caught up in the Bikini atoll tests (Fukuryu-maru) in Japan and the Cold War in the West - we don't trust governments when it comes to nuclear safety.

I've been re-reading Wade Allison's book, Radiation and Reason: The Impact of Science on a Culture of Fear, written in 2009. (It's been translated into Japanese, 放射能と理性 なぜ「100mSV」なのか) His thesis is that according to the science the risk of cancer is first detected at a single dose of 100 mSv. But that the body has the facility to repair itself so 100 mSv a month would be safe, and 5,000 mSv over a lifetime. The ICRP stuck to out of date thinking, for example that radiation should be kept As Low as Reasonably Achievable (ALARA) and that damage increases in line with exposure (LNT Linear No-Threshold) with no allowance for repair. Such strict regulations created a climate of fear. At Chernobyl people were evacuated suddenly and there were many deaths. The lessons were not learnt and it was repeated at Fukushima. Allison maintains there is a pandemic of fear which only education from the bottom up can solve.

Here we are in Fukushima, not afraid, living ordinary lives but the indirect cost has been phenomenal: 30,000 people living in cramped emergency housing, over 1,000 people dead from indirect causes, children getting fat as they can't play outside, young families leaving, the cost of combating prejudice against food and industrial products. Not to mention the direct financial costs of clearing up after the accident.

Societies do over-react when it comes to radiation and nuclear. We, and the country as a whole, is paying a tremendous price for that. Perhaps one of the good things to come out of this is the extraordinary amount of new data which one hopes will help us think more objectively in future.

Enough. It's a cold but bright sunny Sunday morning and I'm off to see the 'bean throwing' at the local temple! More anon.

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