News blog

Fukushima update: on pregnant women and radiation doses

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.


  1. Report this comment

    morris wise said:

    Leakage of Caesium-137 of 547 times the normal level at the Dai-ichi nuclear plant is bad news, it has a half life of 30 years. Experiments with dogs show that a single dose is lethal within three weeks and even a small dose can cause cancer in humans. The worst fear is that it will get into the food supply and affect fertility rates leading to the depopulation of the planet. The IAEA has stated that Caesium-137 is the isotope of choice in dirty bombs, the Dai-ichi leak has accidentally made the dirty bomb a reality.

  2. Report this comment

    Zhizhi said:

    “[T]o them, largely unknown”? “They” as opposed to whom? Informed male citizens?

  3. Report this comment

    Jan Steinman said:

    It seems to me that infants and embryos are exquisitely sensitive to chemical and radiological insult.

    Epidemiologist Ernest Sternglass, of the University of Pittsburgh Medical School determined that about 430 “excess infant deaths” occurred following the Three Mile Island partial meltdown and subsequent radiation release. He plotted infant deaths over time before, during, and after the accident. He found that the infant death rate was declining at a linear rate before the accident, levelled off during the accident, and resumed its linear decline afterward. The integral, or “area under the curve” of this statistical bump corresponded to 430 “excess” deaths.

    Sternglass was roundly criticized by the nuclear industry and by regulatory agencies, who had issued the “wow, that was close, but no one was hurt” notice after the accident.

  4. Report this comment

    Ray Phenicie said:

    I have one thing to say: Mr. Jim Smith should do his homework.

    Chernobyl was a huge disaster-over 800,000 died terrible deaths as a result of the accident. Yeah, I’d be have radiation fear too.

    The minority report on Fukushima is here

    As in the Movie-treachery is hidden by the Majority reports that Mr. Smith is fond of quoting.

    Another report from the minority about Chernobyl

    A Million dead and counting



Comments are closed.