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JAPAN: New Radiation Limits Demanded for Children

Suvendrini Kakuchi

TOKYO, Sep 29 2011 (IPS) - The threat of radioactive contamination faced particularly by children after the Mar. 11 nuclear disaster in Japan has touched the heart of the Japanese public, and become a major political and social issue.

Mothers are inevitably in the forefront of citizen groups working to protect children. At a meeting this week at the Ministry of Welfare, they presented an appeal that included a demand for the world’s first radiation safety standards for minors.

During a meeting with Vice-Minister for Health and Welfare Yoko Komiyama, Emiko Ito from the Fukshima- based Kodomo Zenkoku (Children Across Japan) Net called on the government to do more to protect children. “Safety standards established in nuclear power countries are currently set for adults,” she said. “It is a given fact that children are far more vulnerable to exposure.”

Paediatrician Dr Makoto Yamada from the Network to Protect Children from Radiation told IPS: “The hard truth is that radiation levels set in countries today are continuously challenged. Against such a backdrop, it is almost impossible to set a medically accepted rate for children.”

Yamada says he believes children should be protected from all levels of radiation, which is the reason he started his network. The network is comprised of doctors from across Japan who visit Fukushima voluntarily to counsel anxious parents and provide independent radiation testing.

Official testing has indicated children have been exposed to low-grade internal radiation since the accident. Results from tests conducted in late March indicated 45 percent of the selected 1,100 children living in zones outside the evacuation areas were exposed to low dose internal radiation.

Internal radiation enters the body through breathing contaminated air, or consuming contaminated food or dinks, and can have a greater effect on health compared to external radiation that is confined to the surrounding environment.

Rising anxiety among parents has also led to more stringent safety precautions in schools. Children are forced to wear long sleeves and stay indoors, and authorities have dug away mountains of topsoil in schools to minimise radiation contamination, since topsoil contains more radiation.

Among the cascade of distress signals is the fact that 2,300 children have been taken out of private kindergartens, according to official figures in May. Summer camps were held for children in various parts of the country by sympathetic host organisations to help minimise the risk.

Concern for children has also led to an increasing number of single-parent households as mothers move away from Fukushima with the children, leaving fathers behind.

“Fathers cannot leave their jobs, so we are seeing separation in families which is causing stress. In rare cases there have also been reports of divorces as a result of difference in opinion between mothers and fathers on the risk level posed to the children,” said Maya Kobayashi, a young woman who moved away from Fukushima.

Seichi Nakate, spokesperson for Fukushima Children Net describes the high degree of concern among parents for the children as a landmark social issue in Japan.

“The Fukushima nuclear plant accident marks a huge jolt to the Japanese psyche,” he told IPS. He said residents of Fukushima feel cheated by the authorities who had repeatedly only explained the merits of nuclear power.

“This is the key reason for the ongoing mistrust against the government, that is now having a hard time trying to placate the people. The old image of Japan having established a solid social and economic order has broken. The consequences of such a challenge can be far-reaching.”

Some do not want to start a family in the Fukushima area any more. Newly married Kobayashi, 24, moved away from her home in Fukushima city in May to escape radiation contamination from the March disaster that crippled nuclear power plants almost 100 kilometres away.

“The choice was clear. With my husband and I ready to start a family, the most crucial thing for me was to protect myself from radiation. I was not ready to trust the government order that restricted the contamination zone to 30 kilometres,” she tells IPS.

Kobayashi has currently settled into neighbouring Yamagata prefecture, 60 kilometres from Fukushima City that is the centre of the Fukushima prefecture.

Yamagata is one of several local states in Japan that welcome and support people who want to leave Fukushima, an offer eagerly snatched by thousands of families with little children.

Since her evacuation, Kobayashi is working hard to support people like her. The vast majority seeking her services in a list of 700 want detailed information on relocation challenges and the nitty-gritty of financial subsidies, she says.

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