14000 US deaths from Fukushima? Not likely!

Brian Mon, 2012-01-02 20:40
The Tōhoku earthquake/tsunami, 2011

A duo of "radiation experts" have caused a flurry of concern lately over radiation from Japan's crippled nuclear reactors.

They calculate that 14,000 "excess deaths" in the US are attributable to clouds of radiation drifting from the stricken Dai-ichi reactors in Fukushima prefecture. Stories about their calculations have appeared in a few places, including here, here, here, and here.

Predictably, this study is beginning to turn up in the scribblings of tweeters and facebookers.

The first thing to notice is that three of four of these consist merely of the re-printing of news releases produced by the authors of the study, who, not surprisingly, tout their own research, while the UPI story is a summary of the release, adding nothing that isn't contained in the release itself. This is not reporting, it's acting as a conduit for media releases.

While a link between radiation from Fukushima would certainly be an important finding, notice that Drs. Mangano and Sherman also emphasize two less relevant, but perhaps more dramatic, points:

  • This study is the first Fukushima radiation study in a scientific journal
  • The number of deaths involved makes the Fukushima disaster comparable to Chernobyl.

Now I know not everybody is like me. The first claim above warns me that the study might be premature, or hurried, so it could be first. The second warns me that a prime motive behind the study is to work Chernobyl into the discussion of Fukushima. This is a technique Helen Caldicott often resorts to, with her nonsensical claim that Fukushima is worse than a "million Chernobyls." (For a comparison of Chernobyl and Fukushima done by scientists with no axes to grind, see this article in Nature.)

And, indeed, we find that the two doctors are Board members of the Radiation and Public Health Project, a clearly anti-nuclear advocacy organization (not that there's anything wrong with that!), "dedicated to understanding the relationships between low-level, nuclear radiation and public health." A review of their web-site indicates that they are advocates of the position that low level radiation is bad for public health, and their research is all in that direction. Again, not that there's anything wrong with that. However, in making an assessment of their claims we'd want to know more about the "peer review" process.

Michael Moyer, editor in charge of technology coverage at Scientific American, provides a peer review of sorts (as well as some of their earlier work). His conclusion: Drs. Mangano and Sherman have attributed any increase in deaths post-Fukushima to Fukushima. It should be obvious enough even to the layperson that that's no way to conduct research. People die for all kinds of reasons, and lots of other causes need to be ruled out (weather? increased poverty due to the depression? price of heating oil?) before you can blame on Japan every single death that's more than the same period in the previous year..

Finally, the title of the paper is, "An Unexpected Mortality Increase in the United States Follows Arrival of the Radioactive Plume from Fukushima: Is There a Correlation?" It's absolutely trite knowledge that in scientific pursuits you don't establish a cause merely by finding a correlation.

Interestingly, if we continue to look into the doctors, we find that Dr. Sherman was "the Contributing Editor of Chernobyl—Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and Nature, by Alexey V. Yablokov, Vassily B. Nesterenko, and Alexey V. Nesterenko." Her web-site adds of this volume, "Originally published by the New York Academy of Sciences and Wyle-Blackwell in 2009, it is now available from Greko Printing, "leading the industry in printing on demand." What she doesn't say is that this book, a favourite reference for Dr. Caldicott, caused a bit of a stir when the NYAS published it. See, for example, Rod Adams on the matter. While Rod is a nuclear advocate, and can be presumed to have established opinions, note the nature of his objections:

  • The NYAS book contains no peer-reviewed studies
  • The authors attributed all increases of deaths in the area to radiation from Chernobyl.

The reason this tome is now only available from Greko Printing is that the NYAS, stung by the uproar, disowned it, so now it's only available as a self-published volume. It should be obvious to anyone that such a volume has almost no scientific value.

But clearly Dr. Sherman has learned nothing, applying the discredited techniques of the folks behind "Chernobyl—Consequences" to drum up panic over Fukushima. Note that the doctors even use figures of deaths from Chernobyl (16,500 in 17 weeks), figures that have been discredited by the UN study on the matter, which found dozens of deaths, but not even hundreds, let alone thousands.

What the UN study did find is that the number of mental health problems post-Chernobyl was a real problem. The cause, they said, was the fear and panic among the evacuees and others in the path of the radiation, the fear that there would be drastic health effects. People like Drs. Mangano and Sherman are doing all they can to sow such seeds of fear, and in my view will share responsibility for the effects.