Radiation exposure and cancer risk: eerie parallels between Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi
The Chernobyl disaster shows why quick action by Japanese officials is key to helping catch cancers earlier—and at their most treatable stages
By Justin Matlick, Hutchinson Center science writer
When the Hutchinson Center’s Dr. Scott Davis first heard about the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, he immediately sent a flurry of emails to his colleagues there, asking if they were safe and if there was anything he could do to help.
Fortunately, Davis’ friends came through unscathed; most of them were located in Hiroshima, which largely escaped damage. Unfortunately, they may yet need his help.
Davis has spent more than a decade studying the relationship between radiation exposure and cancer risk. In the 1980s, he spent two years in Japan studying cancer impact from the atomic bomb blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Later, he did a series of studies on how radiation released by the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown increased cancer’s incidence in the surrounding area. Now, he’s seeing eerie parallels between that disaster and the crisis unfolding at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station.
While details remain sketchy, Davis thinks it’s reasonable to assume that some of the power station’s workers, as well as some people living nearby, will face an elevated risk of leukemia and other cancers.
“It certainly sounds to me like there are ways in which people could get substantially exposed,” he says.
Chernobyl serves as model—of what not to do
Davis’ experience studying Chernobyl gives him a unique perspective on how the Japanese health system could best respond to this threat. In Chernobyl, it wasn’t until five years after the meltdown that Davis and his colleagues could start collecting critical data on who was exposed, when they were exposed, and what the radiation levels were at that time. This delay made it difficult to piece together an accurate picture of what had happened and who was affected, allowing many victims to fall through the cracks.
In Japan, Davis said researchers or health care authorities should move as quickly as possible to collect data on the radiation and the people who are affected. Building such a registry would help authorities keep close track of people who face a higher risk of cancer and other radiation-related health problems, making it potentially easier to catch cancers at their earliest, most treatable stages.
“What you want to do is follow people who are exposed and determine what their risk is depending on how much radiation they received,” Davis says.
While he has already offered to help set this up, Davis cautions that this type of data gathering is an expensive endeavor—potentially costing tens of millions of dollars a year—that could be difficult to fund. Still, he’s hopeful that researchers will take up the project as soon as the situation stabilizes.
For now, Davis says the information he’s getting from his Japanese friends isn’t much different than what’s being shown on the American news. “Everything seems to be changing so quickly that it’s hard to know exactly what’s going on,” he said.