Yesterday, I got to host an eye-opening Q&A with Dan Edge, a PBS FRONTLINE producer who just finished a documentary about what happened at Fukushima during the first few days of the nuclear crisis there.
During that discussion, we touched a bit on the psychological impact all of this—the earthquake, the tsunami, the nuclear meltdowns—has had on the Japanese people. From studies of what's happened to the people who lived near Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, we know that the fear and stress associated with these kinds of disasters can have complex and long-ranging health effects.
Today, Paul Voosen, a journalist with Greenwire, emailed me a story he wrote last year, during the first month of the Fukushima crisis, that delves into some of the science behind how disasters (and especially nuclear disasters) affect the human psyche. If you've already read it, it's worth reading again.
Certainly, lasting scars of emotional distress -- which, at its worst, can manifest itself as serious depression or post-traumatic stress, among other symptoms -- are what researchers found in young mothers and others directly affected by past nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island in 1979 and seven years later at the much more serious Chernobyl meltdown in Ukraine.
"What's most striking," Bromet said, "both about Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, which are obviously completely different events with different environmental consequences, is that the emotional consequences just never end."
The Fukushima crisis is, of course, an incredibly difficult situation for Japan's authorities and residents. Caution is more than justifiable when it comes to radiation, and the fear and stress that could stem from radiation risk warnings would be difficult to prioritize over immediate health concerns, said Johan Havenaar, a Dutch psychiatrist who has worked with Chernobyl evacuees.
"It is an understandably frightening situation for [the Japanese]," he said, "even if the risk is small and the measure predominantly precautionary. ... It would be unfair to suggest that the psychological effects -- i.e. their fears -- are unjustified."
What authorities should do, and often fail to do, is treat mental and physical health problems with equal respect, understanding that the two go hand in hand, Bromet said. They must respect the persistent fears that will form about radiation exposure in Japan, no matter how low the exposure and how this can take a permanent toll on people's lives, she said.
If you want to know more about this, there are several other links I'd recommend:
• Charles Q. Choi wrote a great piece during his tour of Chernobyl last year about the health effects of that disaster, and why it's actually easier to spot the mental health impacts than the effects of radiation exposure.
• The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a primer that explains how disasters affect the mental health of different groups of people, and how the impacts vary a lot based on how close you were to the tragedy.
• Chernobyl's Legacy is a document produced by a study group made up of the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the International Atomic Energy Agency and others. It summarizes a lot of the research showing both the mental health impact of that disaster, and how authorities have failed to respond to it.
• Another good paper, if you can find a full, free copy of it: Psychological and Perceived Health Effects of the Chernobyl Disaster: A 20-year Review.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.