Sunday, August 14, 2011

Radiation vs Fear of Radiation: The Body Count

Japanese TV and public opinion continues to be dominated by the faux crisis at the damaged nuclear power plant in Fukushima.
There's no doubt that the accident has had a huge negative impact upon the economy and psychology of Japan. But not for the reason you may think. That is, not because of the radiation (there's hasn't been enough to adversely affect anybody), but because of the Fear of radiation. Putting aside for the moment the direct and indirect financial costs this Fear has incurred, a simple body count can be quite revealing.
The Body Count: Fear of Radiation
You can be absolutely sure that if people had been killed by the radiation, we would be hearing about it constantly and numbers would be updated daily. On the other hand, no media source that I can find has attempted to calculate the number of people who have died as a result of the fear of radiation from Fukushima. It's difficult but not impossible to make an estimate. I can think of at least 4 sources of injuries or fatalities:
1. Iodine idiocy: In the first few day after the accident occurred, iodine sales around the world skyrocketed, in the false belief that just taking iodine can protect you from radiation. This happened despite government warnings that iodine was both ineffective and unnecessary. Although I couldn't find any news about people dying, some people appear to have been hospitalized due to overdose. The insanity was particularly spectacular in China, where people rushed supermarkets to buy salt in the false belief that iodised salt could provide protection from Fukushima radiation:
2: Unnecessary evacuation. According to Wikipedia, no less than 45 people died at a hospital in Futaba, Fukushima when the order came to evacuate immediately. Apparently the staff were not equipped to evacuate hundreds of patients and many elderly or bedridden were...left to die of dehydration or inattention. A terible death. And entirely avoidable as radiation levels were never high enough to require such a swift and heedless flight.
3. Suicide. On Google you can find news articles reporting on the 'plague of suicides' as the Japanese supposedly off themselves in droves because of depression caused by radiation. Not surprisingly, the truth is a bit more prosaic. It's true that there was a 20% rise in the suicide rate in May this year- 499 more people killed themselves than in May last year. However, it's impossible to say for certain that these suicides were related to Fear of Radiation as opposed to stress in general resulting from the earthquake and tsunami- loss of family, PTSD etc. As far as I can tell only two suicides can definitely be put down to the nuclear accident: an organic cabbage farmer worried about his soil and a dairy farmer who was forced to slaughter all his cows after the milk became unsaleable.
4. Heatstroke. Since the accident in Fukushima 35 out of Japan's 54 nuclear plants have been shut down for 'renovations' or 'safety checks'. An extraordinarily unnecessary move unless you are expecting another 14 metre tsunami in the near future. And these shutdowns have resulted in this summer's major government appeal to the populace: power saving. And it works: stores have dim lighting, escalators are turned off, even my wife refuses to turn on the air conditioning to below 30 degrees. In fact, she reports from online gossip that in some areas 'neighborhood watch' groups are patrolling the backstreets to find houses with the airconditioning putting out too much exhaust, so they can knock on the doors and harass people (every Japanese neighbourhood has a bunch of middle aged ladies who love to do this). Well, heatstroke this year is up by three-fold. More than 13,000 people were hospitalized in June alone, and 35 have died. Some people will die every year from heatstroke in Japan, but if there is a three-fold rise something is going on. If deaths have also risen three-fold, that works out at maybe 23 people who died unnecessarily because they were attempting to save electricity by not using air conditioning. A phenomenon which I find entirely believable, if very sad.
Iodine overdose: ?
Evacuation: 45
Suicide: at least 2
Heatstroke: 23
Total: 70 plus.
The Body Count: Radiation.
None. And not likely to be any either, as nobody apart from a few workers has received a dose equivalent to the lowest dose that could possibly be associated with an increase risk of cancer or other adverse health effects. And the number of those workers is very small, and statistically they are unlikely to suffer any health effects. At least, not from radiation. The Fear on the other hand...

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