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J Radiol Prot. 2012 Mar;32(1):N33-40. doi: 10.1088/0952-4746/32/1/N33. Epub 2012 Mar 6.

Radiation epidemiology: a perspective on Fukushima.

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  • 1Department of Medicine, Division of Epidemiology, Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, Vanderbilt School of Medicine, Nashville, TN, USA.


For nearly 100 years, epidemiologic studies of human populations exposed to ionising radiation have provided quantitative information on health risks. High dose deterministic (tissue reaction) effects result when sufficient numbers of functioning cells are killed, such as in bone marrow depression that can lead to death. Lower dose stochastic effects are probabilistic in nature and include an increased risk of cancer later in life and heritable genetic defects, although genetic conditions in the children of irradiated parents have yet to be convincingly demonstrated. Radiation studies are of diverse populations and include not only the Japanese atomic bomb survivors, but also patients treated with radiation for malignant and non-malignant disease; patients exposed for diagnostic purposes; persons with intakes of radionuclides; workers occupationally exposed; and communities exposed to environmental and accidentally released sources of radiation. Much is known about radiation and its risks. The major unanswered question in radiation epidemiology, however, is not whether radiation causes cancer, but what the level of risk is following low dose (<100 mSv) or low dose rate exposures. Paracelsus is credited with first articulating that the 'poison is in the dose', which for radiation epidemiology translates as 'the lower the dose, the lower the risk' and, an important corollary, the lower the dose, the greater the difficulty in detecting any increase in the number of cancers possibly attributable to radiation. In contrast to the Chernobyl reactor accident, the Fukushima reactor accident has to date resulted in no deterministic effects and no worker deaths. Estimates to date of population doses suggest very low uptakes of radioactive iodine which was a major determinant of the epidemic of thyroid cancer following childhood exposures around Chernobyl. The estimates to date of population doses are also much lower (and the distribution much narrower) than the doses for which cancer excesses have been detected among atomic bomb survivors after 60 years of follow-up. Studies of populations exposed to low doses are also limited in their ability to account for important lifestyle factors, such as cigarette smoking and medical x-ray exposures, which could distort findings. Studies of the Fukushima population should be and are being considered for reassurance and health care reasons. Apart from as regards the extreme psychological stress caused by the horrific loss of life following the tsunami and the large-scale evacuation from homes and villages, such studies have limited to no chance of providing information on possible health risks following low dose exposures received gradually over time--the estimated doses (to date) are just too small.

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