Published: July 31st, 2012 at 6:26 am ET
Title: Fukushima: precious time has been lost
Author: Michel Fernex
Date: June 7, 2012
Dr. Michel Fernex
- Emeritus Professor, Basel Faculty of Medecine
- Former Consultant, World Health Organization
“What should WHO have done after Chernobyl ?” asked Dr Nabarro in 2002 when he was Acting Director-General of the World Health Organization. I replied immediately, and then confirmed it in writing: “Convene a Scientific Working Group on Ionising Radiation and Genetics” like the one in 1956, and add the words “and Genomic Instability”.
Since 1959, an agreement signed between WHO and the International Atomic Energy Agency, and then a number of additional legal texts, prohibit WHO from intervening in nuclear accidents.
What genetic damage has been done to the population following the accident at Fukushima? Are the alterations already recorded in the cells of those workers who have exhausted themselves, over the last year, in an effort to reduce the dissemination of radionuclides into the environment. What about people who inhaled radioactive material and ate contaminated food ? Has this induced genomic instability? And the children that have been born since, or who will be born to fathers or mothers who have been irradiated. Have they inherited the fragile genomes of their parents? Are they, perhaps, going to be even worse affected than their parents ?
In fact, researchers have been surprised to find that genetic damage, and above all perigenetic damage, which is responsible for genomic instability, to descendants is far worse than to parents; and this risk increases from one generation to the next. R.J.Baker and his colleagues, studying the DNA of genes transmitted from mother voles to their babies, found levels of mutation, from generation to generation, reaching 100 times higher than anything we have previously encountered up to now in the animal kingdom. The area in which these rodents live has seen its level of radioactivity decrease, because Caesium 137 is carried in rainwater and infiltrates deep into the soil, where it can be recycled by plants.
One might think that in forests far away from Chernobyl that these rodents would react positively to these improved radiological conditions. But the mutations and the genome fragility have increased over 22 generations in populations of voles studied by Goncharova and Ryabokon in Belarus. These geneticists have observed the opposite of an adaptation to radioactivity: an increase in genomic instability in all populations studied, from 30 to 300 kilometres away from the stricken reactor. In the least contaminated zones, near Minsk, the genomic instability is slow, but it will persist and worsen up to 22 generations later.
The genetic effects observed in both humans and rodents has led Professor Hillis, at the University of Texas, to conclude in his editorial in the review Nature, 25th April 1996: « We know today that the mutagenic effect of a nuclear accident can be far more serious than we ever suspected, and the eucaryotic genome can present levels of mutation that, up to now, would not have been considered possible. »
At Fukushima, genomic instability needs to be followed up over generations, starting with grandparents and parents, then the children and grand children. After a year, the damage caused by the mixture of internal and external radiation to children should be measured, by comparison with data from before 2011 in the same areas, or by comparing data with communities further away, that were spared the radioactive fallout. Birthweight, incidence of stillbirth, perinatal mortality up to 28 days, birth deformities (heart problems should be investigated later), and among the genetic diseases, Down’s syndrome, should all be studied. Brain damage with tumours, and developmental retardation which, like decreases in IQ, will become evident at school age.
In order to achieve its objectives, the IAEA cannot admit that these serious and common illnesses were caused by ionising radiation, because once known, it would prevent the development of the nuclear industry throughout the world.
It was almost incomprehensible that at Fukushima there was no distribution of stable iodine to the population that would soon be under threat. Such a preventive measure would have been welcomed, as Keith Baverstock showed in Poland after Chernobyl.
The first victims of a serious nuclear accident are and will be children, with an increase in allergies and an aggravation of infectious diseases, which become chronic and involve serious complications.
In equal doses, external radiation is ten to a hundred times less damaging than chronic internal radiation, which essentially results from the oral absorption of radionuclides. These concentrate in organs like the thymus, the endocrine glands, the spleen, the bone surfaces and the heart.
Published: July 31st, 2012 at 6:26 am ET