Sunday, November 27, 2011

Fukushima-linked cancer risk so low it cannot be measured

There was a very interesting article in the Japan Times on Friday.  It concerned the risk of getting cancer due to radiation released from the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant.  The science is clear- the risk is so low that it cannot be measured.  But that wasn't the interesting thing.  What stood out to me was how the information was presented.

I found it curious how 'no cancer detectable' becomes 'cancer may be impossible to detect'.  In one the implication is there is no cancer; in the other, there is cancer, just impossible to detect. Language is a funny thing. There's a lesson here about how the media works and what people want to read.

The writer is very keen to keep alive the possibility of danger.  Rather than simply inform readers that there is nothing to worry about, the article airs the views of housewives like Yuka Saito, who doesn't let her children play outside from fear of radiation, and makes them wear hats, face masks and long sleeves if they go out at all.  We hear about residents who want to flee but 'have no place to go'.  We read of consumers who are so worried about radiation they constantly carry geiger counters.  One could be forgiven, after having read the article, for having the impression that radiation was a deadly and insidious menace killing at will and unseen.

I think it's very sad that these kinds of views are presented as a valid alternative to those of mainstream scientists who say there is no measurable danger.  The risk is quite literally immeasurably small.  It's impossible to report a measure of risk that is lower than that.  If residents of Fukushima desire to leave because of that risk, can they really said to be acting rationally?  If they move to, say, Tokyo, they will be subject to other small, but actual genuine and measurable risks: the risk of reduced life expectancy due to pollution, the risk of violent crime. 

By any reasonable measure, if risks to health were to be objectively and rationally evaluated and acted upon, then Tokyo would be evacuated to Fukushima.

Of course we cannot rule out the possibility of Fukushima power plant radiation-induced cancer completely.  Science is not capable of that; nothing can be said with 100% certainty.  For example, I cannot rule out with 100% certainty that fairies live at the bottom of my garden.  After all, they certainly are impossible to detect!  But if somebody wants me to take the possibility into account, they are damn sure going to have to provide some pretty convincing evidence. evidence at all.