SimplyInfo.org member Dean Wilke only recently discovered Ora Cohen's article with the title "Israeli firm which secured Japan nuclear plant says workers there 'putting their lives on the line'" published online by Haaretz Mar. 18, 2011. In this article the author reports that the operator of the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station that incurred three reactor meltdowns after the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, Mar. 11, 2011, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) had hired the Israeli security firm Magna BSP to provide expert 24/7 security surveillance on the station's premises. The Magna system included a network of sophisticated video cameras canvassing the site from all angles and was active at the time of the accident. Per agreement, only TEPCO is able to access the data. To date, the company has not publicly acknowledged the existence of Magna's system or any footage that may have been recorded with it during the accident and its aftermath. Is TEPCO hiding valuable information pertinent to the accident?
Sunday, May 12, 2013
Sunday, April 28, 2013
On April 25, The New York Times published Gary Gutting's essay with the title "What Do Scientific Studies Show?" written for The Stone. The author argues that much scientific reporting in the media suffers from journalistic misconceptions of the methodological limitations inherent in the reported studies. As consequence, the significance of the findings tends to appear disproportionately exaggerated in the news, particularly when advances in medical treatments are at stake.
Because epidemiological studies, as much as empirical social science studies, profoundly depend on statistical analyses of covariance and correlation, Professor Gutting admonishes that association is too easily confused with causation. He proposes that journalists ought to judge the value of the observations they wish to report, ranking studies by methodological rigor. Essentially, the author encourages the media to evaluate a study's scientific merit, before the implications of its findings are reported in the news. He squarely places responsibility with the news editors and journalists.
I agree with the author that quantitative studies commonly incur the risk of unrepresentative sampling (read my essay with the title "Representative Sampling & The Mind" dated Mar. 18, 2011) and that professional science correspondents should strive to understand the limitations of the empirical sciences and their statistical methods. Best practice and scientific integrity are of utmost importance because of the wide-spread skepticism of science we find in this country today.
However, in some cases unprofessional judgment by the media is not the sole culprit of the undue embellishment of the relevance of new research findings. Rather, the exaggeration may begin with the investigators and the public relation departments of the academic institutions they are affiliated with. Below I provide one example.
Since the catastrophic nuclear reactor meltdown near Chernobyl, Ukraine, in 1986, which blanketed vast areas of Europe with radioactive fallout, the effects of low-level ionizing radiation on public health have been of particular interest of research. The three reactor meltdowns in Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, two years ago brought the importance of this topic even more into the awareness of public health professionals. Which levels of ionizing radiation can be considered safe continues to be hotly debated among scientists as much as in the public, while the US Environmental Protection Agency is striving to revise its guidelines on recommended limits (Radiation Protection; Protective Action Guide updates, Mar. 2013).
Roughly a year ago the journal Environmental Health Perspectives published a research study conducted with mice at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) (Olipitz and others, 2012). The authors could not find any statistically significant effect of low-level ionizing radiation in the mice. A discussion on simplyinfo.org brought this paper to my attention.
I found profound shortcomings in the design of the MIT study and the evaluation of the data. That is, the chosen time of exposure to ionizing radiation was shorter than that used in other studies showing dose-related chromosomal aberrations at low dose rates. Moreover, the investigators elected to integrate the results of separate experiments using different techniques, but no comprehensive statistical tests were carried out on the results. My concerns were published in a letter to the editor (Melzer P, 2012), to which the paper's senior authors responded (Engelward and Yanch, 2012).
Despite the study's shortcomings and of importance to the debate over Professor Gutting's stone of contention in The New York Times, the principal investigators brazenly chose to advertise their findings on MITnews as evidence that low-level ionizing radiation may be harmless to our health and that current emergency planning for radiological accidents may be too cautious in the assessment of the public health risks of ionizing radiation. I cite from Ann Trafton's post with the title "A new look at prolonged radiation exposure" published May 15, 2012:
“There are no data that say that’s a dangerous level,” says Yanch, a senior lecturer in MIT’s Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering. “This paper shows that you could go 400 times higher than average background levels and you’re still not detecting genetic damage. It could potentially have a big impact on tens if not hundreds of thousands of people in the vicinity of a nuclear power plant accident or a nuclear bomb detonation, if we figure out just when we should evacuate and when it’s OK to stay where we are.”Conclusion
In my letter to the editor-in-chief of Environmental Health Perspectives, I explained in no uncertain terms why the findings of this study remain ambiguous at best. In their response, the senior authors conceded that they understood their study's limitations. Therefore, it remains difficult to comprehend why the authors made such extremely far-fetched claims with profound implications for public health policy in the MITnews release.
Sadly, news releases that recklessly misrepresent research findings may not seem unexpected. Federal funding vital to investigators and host institutions alike has been tight over the last decade, taking another significant cut with this year's sequestration. The National Institutes of Health currently fund fewer than 1 in 10 investigator-initiated applications for research grants. I have written previously about the crucial role of federal funding in US biomedical research in my post with the title "Research Funding & Lost Treasures of the Mind" dated Oct. 23, 2008.
Regardless of the difficult times, studies like the one discussed here should never be embellished to influence decision making in public health policy. Moreover, news releases like the one above ought never be used to inform the public.
- Engelward B, Yanch J (2012) Radiation dose-rate: Engelward and Yanch Respond. Environ Health Perspect 120:a417–a418.
- Melzer P (2012) Radiation dose-rate and DNA damage. Environ Health Perspect 120:a417–a417.
- Olipitz W, Wiktor-Brown D, Shuga J, Pang B, McFaline J, Lonkar P, Thomas A, Mutamba JT, Greenberger JS, Samson LD, Dedon PC, Yanch JC, Engelward BP (2012) Integrated molecular analysis indicates undetectable DNA damage in mice after continuous irradiation at ~400-fold natural background radiation. Environ Health Perspect 120: 1130–1136. Published online 2012 April 26. doi: 10.1289/ehp.1104294
- Trafton A (2012) A new look at prolonged radiation exposure. MIT study suggests that at low dose-rate, radiation poses little risk to DNA. MITnews.
Friday, February 22, 2013
The disastrous nuclear reactor accident at Fukushima Dai-ichi (number one) Nuclear Power Station on the Pacific coast 120 miles north of Tokyo is nearing its second anniversary. As a consequence of the loss of all electric power after the Tohoku-Chihou-Taiheiyou-Oki Earthquake and Tsunami on March 11, 2011, nuclear fuel melted down in three of the station's six reactors.
Destructive hydrogen explosions severely damaged the facilities. The amounts of radioactivity released into the environment has been surpassed only by the Chernobyl reactor accident of 1986. Residents near the plant were exposed to radioactive fallout while evacuating the area. The immediate surroundings of the power station and the region affected by the plume of airborne radioactivity remain highly contaminated today. Roughly 80,000 residents living in the government-declared exclusion zones are not permitted to return home permanently. Only daytime visits are allowed on occasion (see Chris Meyers' report with the title "A year on, only brief home visits for Japan nuclear evacuees" published online by Reuters Feb. 13, 2012). The International Medical Corps aptly summarizes the challenges the evacuees have faced on its Fukushima Prefecture Fact Sheet.
|Gamma radiation-based contamination map (high: orange; low: blue; dose rates can be obtained from the IMC Fukushima Prefecture fact sheet) showing the plume area, radii of the 12- and 15-mile evacuation zones as well as of the 50-mile ingestion zone US citizens were advised to avoid (source: NNSA).|
|Birdseye view of Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station in February, 2013. Unit 1 (top, left) has been enshrouded in a tent-like structure to control gassous radioactive effluents. The refueling floor of Unit 4 (top; right) has been cleared in preparation for a new roof structure. TEPCO is in the process of clearing debris off the refueling floor of Unit 3 (left of Unit 4). Note the sprawling tank farm for the storage of contaminated cooling water (source: House of Japan).|
Now, that we are nearing the two-year milestone, the international media have begun to gauge the current state of affairs in Fukushima. In her article with the title "Unexpected Post-Fukushima Health Woes: Depression, Obesity" posted on CommonHealth Reform and Reality Feb. 15, 2013, guest contributor Judy Foreman writes that no noticeable direct effects on public health could be attributed to the exposure to ionizing radiation. She tells us furthermore that an international panel of experts concluded that the estimated effective absorbed doses were too small to warrant any concerns for public health. Rather, the experts warned that radiophobia is deeply affecting people, developing into the preeminent medical condition threatening public health. Ms. Foreman notes depression and obesity are on the rise in Fukushima Prefecture, while Geoff Brumfiel reported in his news feature with the title "Fukushima: Fallout of fear" published online by the journal Nature Jan. 16, 2013, that depression, anger and anxieties were prevalent among the displaced.
Phobia is defined as irrational, disproportional fear. Radiophobia represents the irrational, disproportional fear of ionizing radiation. This diagnosis does not seem to pertain to the evacuees from Fukushima who must face fears of the actual consequences of the radiological catastrophe every day. Their fears seem neither irrational nor disproportional.
Absorbed radiation dose estimates available to date for the people of Fukushima must be met with caution. No resident around the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station wore a dosimeter when the fallout rained down. In their preliminary Dose Assessment Report published last summer, radiation experts convened by the World Health Organization had to resort to computational models to estimate effective absorbed dose averages for the examined population. The averages were extrapolated from recordings of a handful of functional monitoring stations scattered across the prefecture. The recordings were incomplete. The available data did not cover the earliest hours of the accident (see The Mainichi article with the title "Fukushima radiation spread to residential areas hours before venting" published online Feb. 22, 2013). Moreover, it does not account for local variations and the contribution of human activity to individual effective absorbed doses.
Individual absorbed doses may depend profoundly on whether the person was indoors or outdoors at the time of the radioactive fallout, whether residents who stayed indoors were well insulated from the outside air, what produce a person consumed in the days and weeks after the releases, i.e. fresh home-grown groceries harvested in the garden and freshly-caught fish or prepackaged food bought in stores, as well as the source of water consumed. Moreover, medical predisposition, gender and age may have influenced how much radioactivity was incorporated and remains in the body.
Personal whole body counts were not performed early enough after the accident to directly capture the internal exposure to ionizing radiation emitted by incorporated short-lived radionuclides. By contrast, cesium-137 with a comparatively long half-life of 30 years is still concentrating in crops, vegetables, mushrooms and life stock and will persist to threaten the human food chain. A quarter century after the Chernobyl reactor accident, Bavarian wild boar stew must remain off the dinner table because the meat's radioactive cesium content is deemed unsafe for human consumption (see Charles Hawley's report with the title "A Quarter Century after Chernobyl: Radioactive Boar on the Rise in Germany" published by Spiegel International Online Jul. 30, 2010). In Japan, continuously emerging hot spots of cesium contamination may pose ever new local health risks for decades to come, requiring unrelenting, meticulous clean-up as well as persistent, diligent crop and life stock controls.
|Thyroid cancer rates in Belarus after the Chernobyl reactor accident (source: S. Yamashita).|
Furthermore, yet unrecognized long-latency effects may progressively attain prevalence. Pets abandoned in the exclusion zone of Fukushima are frequently found ravaged by viral infections. Though the infections might have mainly been the result of the harsh living conditions in the zone (see Jenny Marder's post with the title "What's the Fallout for Dogs Near Fukushima?" published online by PBS Newshour's Rundown Nov. 10, 2011), high infection rates may suggest that immune responses have been compromised, possibly because of the protracted exposure to low-level ionizing radiation (Manda and others, 2012).
Cat rescued from the Fukushima exclusion zone showing symptoms of a severe viral infection around nose and eyes (source: Touhoku inunekokyuen).
- Demidchik YE, Saenko VA, Yamashita S (2007) Childhood thyroid cancer in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine after Chernobyl and at present. Arq Bras Endocrinol Metab 51:748-762.
- Manda K, Glasow A, Paape D, Hildebrandt G (2012) Effects of ionizing radiation on the immune system with special emphasis on the interaction of dendritic and T cells. Front Oncol 2:102.
I thank the contributors of SimplyInfo.org without whom I could not have written this post.