Genetics may explain why many near Fukushima nuclear disaster unaffected by radiation exposure


We hear the word radiation and our impulse is to stay away. After all, nuclear weapons, reactor cores, are all extremely dangerous, as everyone knows. Many people don’t realize that ultraviolet light from the Sun, even the safer UV that gets through the atmosphere is also radiation, the bad kind to boot, meaning ionizing radiation. That means that it has enough energy to strip off electrons from atoms that it encounters.

But at least the awareness of the Sun’s potential to cause skin cancer is better than it was 50 years ago. What’s fascinating though, radiation may not be all bad, because, like just about anything else, it turns out that the level of exposure, or the dose matters. While that seems a reasonable when it comes to lying in the Sun, it’s just as true when it comes to other sources of radiation, even nuclear disasters.

As recently as the current year, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) found cancer rates to be stable around the site of the 2011 Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear reactor accident that released high levels of radiation, due to the earthquake and tsunami that killed almost 19,000 people. This is in sharp contrast to the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident associated unequivocally with elevated rates of pediatric and adolescent thyroid cancer -roughly 6,000 cases in nearby areas of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine by 2005. Less time has occurred since the Fukushima accident, but cases would be appearing were the situation the same as that of Chernobyl.

But the situation is not the same. In the case of Fukushima, evacuation was massive and very rapid. In Japan, roughly 160,000 people rushed out of the area. Furthermore, children in the Chernobyl were drinking milk contaminated with radioactive iodine. This led to damage directed particularly to thyroid tissue. Along with the absence of radioactive iodine-contaminated milk, UNSCEAR thinks that the evacuation and other emergency procedures reduced the exposure both to ionizing radiation and radioactive materials by as much as 90 percent of what it would have been for most people. But might there also be a genetic factor at play?

Over the years, a handful of studies and some epidemiologic work have been dropping hints that different individuals may be more sensitive than others to radiation damage, particularly in settings of low to medium dose exposure. As early as the 1980s, mouse model studies demonstrated varying radiosensitivity embryos at various stages of development. Furthermore, laboratory animal model studies have elucidated possible benefits of exposure to low dose radiation (LDR). Known as radiation hormesis, the mechanism may involve stimulation of cell proliferation and genetic repair systems.

In the past, LDR has been used clinically to treat certain conditions, including pneumonia. It is no longer used in such settings, but during the last few years, therapeutic LDR research has focused on diabetes. Specifically, some promising rodent studies have demonstrated that LDR can prevent diabetes associated kidney damage.

Why then is radiation exposure in health care and industry minimized based on the principle of “as low as reasonably achievable” (ALARA)? Using an extreme case, for instance a pregnant patient declining a dental X-ray, the scientific basis for taking ALARA to such a point is a mathematical estimate of radiation risk known as the linear-no-threshold (LNT) model. Based on cancer rates following radiation exposure events, such as the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings, populations receiving radiation doses not high enough to produce acute radiation sickness, but still very high, were assessed for changes in the incidence of certain diseases. For leukemia and solid cancers, especially thyroid cancer, population studies have established a definite causal relationship between moderate to high ionizing radiation doses (more than a few hundred mSv) and malignancy, but the LNT model takes data from the moderate to high dose range and back extrapolates the plot to generate relative risks for individuals exposed to lower doses.

The problem with this is that evaluations using real data, including from the Japanese bombings, show uncertain associations between lower dose exposures and cancer. In the 100-200 mSv range (roughly corresponding to full body computed tomography doses), there may or may not be a causal association, and moving down toward lower doses (10-20 mSv, the range of some flat film chest radiography), the effects of ionizing radiation are simply unknown. The line that’s solid and straight at the high doses may not reach down to these lower doses, so there may indeed be a threshold. Furthermore, based on the rodent studies, there could even be some benefits, even in terms of cancer prevention. And finally, since any thresholds and benefits may depend on cellular and genetic repair mechanisms tolerating and/or being stimulated at particular levels of LDR, it seems logical that there should be variation in the radiation tolerance of different genetic groups or ethnicities.

No doubt, the UNSCEAR assessment accounts for most of what there has been no change in cancer rates following the Fukushima compared with the increase after Chernobyl. But given the complexity of eukaryotic genetics and cell repair mechanisms, it is tempting to wonder whether some more fundamental biology might be at play.

David Warmflash is an astrobiologist, physician, and science writer. Follow @CosmicEvolution to read what he’s saying on Twitter

  • Sean Mcgee

    9,640 Fukushima plant workers reach radiation level for leukemia compensation .. “…Only four people who worked at the stricken Fukushima No. 1 plant have
    applied for compensation for cancer. Their requests are currently under

    “….[Note: Fukushima Medical University cites patient privacy when refusing to disclose details of their findings].
    They asked him there must be a rough estimate of non-cancer thyroid
    diseases made by thyroid specialists conducting ultrasound screening.
    Nagataki told them he would get back to them in writing as he didn’t know what to say….”

    British researcher blasts U.N. report on Fukushima cancer risk as unscientific

  • Bruce

    There is also the Japan Secrecy Act – which prevents full access to the real figures.

    “Tepco has often been accused of concealing information about the crisis and many details have first emerged in the press. In July, Tepco finally admitted to massive leaks of radiation-contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean after months of media reports and denials by the utility.”

    “The “Specially Designated Secrets Protection Law” poses a severe threat to news reporting and press freedom in Japan. Government officials have not shied away from intimidating reporters in the past. The new law will grant them greater power to do so. Passage of the law fulfills a longstanding government objective to gain additional leverage over the news media. The new law could have a withering effect on news reporting and thus on the people’s knowledge of the actions of their government.”

  • Name

    It is still far more likely that Fukushima was exactly as minor an incident as it turned out to be.

    0 deaths as of this moment, that weren’t ordinary accidents or due to the chaos of evacuation. Expectation of statistically negligible ongoing effects.

    • badforu

      It will be interesting to see if japan can even function as a country in say 10 years. Approx 1/3 to half of there population was heavily dusted with actual radioactive material. We will get to see what the medical books say about radioactive contamination is true or not. By that time the people covering it up will be gone, so they can blame them and the truth will be told im sure.

      • Doug

        Perhaps the survivors will breed a new super human race of radiation immune Godzilla people?

      • Name

        Absolute nonsense. You haven’t even read the reports have you?

        “1/3 of the nation coated in radiation! RADIATION!”

        • badforu

          I do get tired of repeating myself, an i find it strange that so many dont know this. Radiation is emitted energy, alot of things emit radiated energy waves. They go through you and for the most part and under normal circumstances relatively harmless. You CANNOT cover anything with radiation, Once it passes through it is gone. You can coat every thing in radioactive material, and the emitted energy from that material is the elevated radiation reading they tell you of. There is a definte difference between these and they have used this to confuse the regular person, and it has done a good job of it. Read up on radioactive contamination and how it becomes part of you, and the energy it emits once it has become part of you is what kills you.

    • ltsnyder

      Tons of deaths, they spiked right after the incident, The legal eagles say this because. Heck I could poison thousands of people people and cause thousands of cancer deaths, but I could say I caused zero, because you can’t prove it was the million of gamma rays I added that caused the mutation that lead to death, or if it was a stray gamma ray from the earth, there in lies the rub.

      • Name

        Tons of deaths, yes.

        Directly attributable to the tsunami that you seem to have forgotten about.

        • ltsnyder

          New Google “Fukushima radiation nears California coast, judged harmless” and read my comments, you are brainwashed. You think I was talking about wave deaths?

  • Great Negotiator

    Yet still Nuclear power is the only filler right now for power. Solar, Tidal, Hydro, Geothermal isn’t enough. While coal and natural gas are causing huge issues with health and the enviroment. Coal and gas lobby’s continue to hide the truth about living near these plants.

    Coal waste is extremely toxic and it isn’t easy to get rid of. It is also causing more deaths in China and medical issues in one year than all nuclear disasters combined.

  • jack Work

    Japanese press and doctors face prison for reporting or even treating certian cancers. Follow ENENEWS for accurate coverage of this ongoing disaster (crime).

    • n_coast

      ENENEWS? Seriously?

      • jack Work

        It used to be better but it’s still worth looking at. Iori Mochizuki (Fukushima Diary) is also a good source.

        • n_coast

          Am I the only one one posting this site who rates enenews with the National Enquirer?

  • badforu

    The article is focused on radiation and not radioactive contamination. Once the radioactive element is metablized into your system, the radiation it causes at that point is what kills you.

    I wish the secrecy law hadnt been enacted, but now so little news comes out of japan that world knows little more then the wound is still leaking puss.

  • ellther

    The conspiracy theorists in the comments here are remarkable.

    • Name

      Isn’t it just? I’m used to GLP having as many rational posters as bile-spewing nutcases, but here the conspiracy rubbish isn’t even being challenged.

  • rickokona

    The UNSCEAR study is faulty in some many ways. To use it alone to theorize there might be some genetic shift at play is speculation from the fair edges of science. So we are going to debate the BEIR study again. Until such a time the Japanese government allows a full public accounting of the nuclides released over the country we will never have any basis to estimate dosage. More over studies are finding nano particulate nuclides in very large area that extends well south of Yokohama. The wind shift during the core fires is well documented, but the be the nuclide measurements are not. Until there is complete transparency, and that is very unlikely to occur from this Japanese government, speculation is being used as obfuscation.

  • Nicholas Thompson

    Great article!
    Also, the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP) is currently working on a study of radiation workers to determine health effects of radiation, from a wide range of doses (not just high doses like the Atomic Bomb Survivor data).

    Also the picture next to the article is not of Fukushima Daiichi, it’s a natural gas plant.

  • ltsnyder

    Who gave you a forum???? It should be revoked.

    There is a clear and present Thyroid problem in the surrounding area.
    Another paid article from TEPCO.

  • ltsnyder

    more BS, providing an alternate iodine source prevents ongoing uptake of radioactive iodine by the thyroid, (most common form of cancer), period.

    • Richard

      Can you comprehend the information that you read before shooing off your mouth? And your foot! It does not say that Zeolite is an alternate source of iodine! It says that iodine or iodide will do nothing to protect the thyroid if you have been exposed to radiation before taking it and that it will only protect the thyroid for a 24 hour period of time. And if you are exposed to radiation iodide or not it’s a very good Idea to do a detox with Zeolite because it will remove radiation and toxic heavy metals from the entire body. Iodide and iodine removes NOTHING!

  • Pearl

    I did a radiation and heavy metal detox with the mineral called Zeolite and I feel much better now. The United States has big trouble with the Fukushima radiation coming in by air through the jet streams and through the Pacific Ocean currents that are poisoning the fish and seafood we eat! Remember that both heavy metals and radiation is accumulative and the only way to reduce or get rid of these toxins is by doing a safe and proper detox! Thats why I chose Zeolite and it worked well!