Following a rash of news stories saying that pregnant women were fleeing Tokyo, fearing the effects of Fukushima radiation on their unborn children, I found this comment (distributed by the Science Media Centre) helpfully put those fears into context:
Jim Smith, a radioecologist at the University of Portsmouth, UK, who has studied the consequences of the Chernobyl accident for 20 years, said:
“It is completely understandable that pregnant women, in particular, fear the (to them, largely unknown) risk of radiation to their unborn child, particularly at a time when the Fukushima reactors are still not stable. But, in Tokyo current radiation doses to pregnant women and their children are tiny: it’s a long way from Fukushima, and the Japanese authorities are working very hard to keep contaminated milk and vegetables from the affected regions out of the food chain.“
“As news emerges that pregnant women are fleeing Tokyo due to radiation fears, the resonances between Fukushima and Chernobyl continue to grow. The impact of Chernobyl on pregnant women and their unborn children may be one of the hidden consequences of the worst nuclear disaster in history. But it was largely a consequence of fear of radiation, not radiation itself.”
“After Chernobyl, there were many media reports of large numbers of abortions carried out because of mothers’ fear of radiation damage to their unborn child. Studies showed evidence of increased numbers of induced abortions in the most contaminated regions of Belarus and Russia after the accident [1,2]. There are even reports of increased abortion rates in some parts of Western Europe where fallout levels were very much lower. Studies found no evidence of increases in induced abortions in Sweden 3 or Austria 4, but other work in Italy and Denmark reported increases as a result of anxiety in pregnant women [5,6].”
“These fears of radiation after Chernobyl were largely unfounded. There were increased risks of thyroid cancer to children in the most affected areas, in large part caused by a failure by the Soviet authorities to prevent consumption of radioiodine contaminated milk and vegetables. But studies of pregnancy outcomes [1,2] of women in the most affected regions found no clear evidence of radiation effects. The radiation risk to pregnant women and their unborn children from Chernobyl was small, and certainly not high enough to warrant induced abortion.”
1. UNSCEAR, Report to the General Assembly: Sources and effects of ionizing radiation. Volume II (United Nations, New York, pp 453-551, 2000.
2. WHO, Health effects of the Chernobyl accident and special health care programmes. (World Health Organisation, Geneva, 2006.
3. V. Odlind, and A. Ericson, Biomed. Pharmacotherapy 45, 225 (1991).
4. M.C.H. Haeusler, A. Berghold, W. Schoell, P. Hofer, M. Schaffer, Am. J. Obstetrics Gynecol. 167, 1025 (1992).
5. L.B. Knudsen, Biomed. Pharmacotherapy 45, 229 (1991).
6. A. Spinelli, J.F. Osborn, J.F., Biomed. Pharmacotherapy 45, 243 (1991).
For full coverage of the Fukushima disaster, go to Nature’s news special.