By Guadalupe González
They are dying not because of the earthquake or the tsunami or even the nuclear radiation that still contaminates many parts of this region. Ironically, says Dr. Sae Ochi, people are dying because of the very actions that the government imposed to save their lives.
This realization has led the physician on a personal quest to change government disaster policies, which she thinks has led to continuing harm to the people who survived Japan’s epic disaster.
“A scientifically reasonable decision is not always the right decision,” she said. “And spillover effects should be taken to consideration.”
Ochi was a practicing rheumatologist studying epidemiology at Imperial College in London soon after the earthquake hit. While in London, she began to question the government response after having conversations with public health professionals. They regarded the government’s actions—which included large-scale evacuations—as successful because they curbed the death rate at the time.
But Ochi said the government gave little thought to the overall long-term health effects on the evacuees. The fear of radiation overshadowed the “clear and present danger” of the evacuation’s impact on hundred thousands of people, she said.
Nearly 160,000 people evacuated their homes in Fukushima Prefecture. Half of those people have not been able to return to live in their homes. Many left the prefecture, while 44,589 households are still living in trailer-like temporary housing settlements.
Three different evacuation zones were created around the nuclear power: 20 kilometers from the power plant was designated a complete evacuation/ no entry zone; at 20-30 kilometers, people were allowed to stay indoors or leave the scene if they could; and at 30-50 kilometers was where people were planned to evacuate.
However, not everyone had the means to immediately evacuate, especially the elderly who were stuck in their homes and patients in hospitals. They became stranded, more or less, as the government closed off vast regions. They no longer had access to resources like food, water, and supplies at medical centers because companies did not want to be liable for their employees entering dangerous zones.
But the evacuations and restricted living conditions have had adverse health effects on the citizens. Many gave up daily exercise because people were advised to stay indoors, and their diets shifted after staple foods like fish, fruits, and vegetables were discouraged for consumption for the same fear of radioactive contamination.
People who did not flee their homes in some way fared better than those in temporary housing.
Soma Central Hospital conducted a strength study comparing elderly persons who did not evacuate with those in temporary housing. The study found that arm and grip strength in people at temporary housing was weaker than those who did not evacuate. Ochi attributes this deterioration of health to the small living quarters in temporary housing and the lack of normal daily activities like going to work (many residents in Soma were fisherman) and gardening.
“So they are many reasons but… living in temporary housing, they deteriorate their health. And all of these are caused by nuclear power plant accident,” she said.
“You should know that cause of health impact include the impact of policy, the impact of evacuation, and the impact of losing jobs. All of which are much larger impact the radiation exposure.”
Ochi also addressed the issues of food consumption in Fukushima. Because of the risk of contamination, the government urged people to avoid certain foods viable for a healthy diet, such as fish, vegetables and mushrooms. So many people curbed their eating habits and avoided eating food grown or raised in Fukushima, and instead purchased food from other regions. Interestingly, though, not all regions screen their food as strictly as Fukushima so some foods grown outside the prefecture contain higher levels of contamination.
Nonetheless, said Ochi, avoiding staple foods and lack of exercise are greater risks the levels of radiation found in evacuated areas.
“Risk of radiation is still far lower than risk of obesity, risk of lack of exercise and excessive salt,” Ouchi pointed out.