Fukushima and mental health

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.

You can read the rest of this article at The New York Times website.

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.


  1. When the fear mongering never ends and all risk comparisons are put down as some sort of apologistic subterfuge, well, sure the psychological effects never end.

    People in Delaware, who have about 25% higher cancer mortality than people in California don’t have any such mental health problems, despite a very high and objectively existent risk that, however, nobody really ever talks about or takes serious – whereas low radioactivity is objectively a very small risk, that, however, everybody keeps talking about and takes serious.

    If Delaware was radioactively contaminated, after some sort of nuclear incident, such cancer  rates would have long since led to an evacuation of the entire state. Same goes for Mississippi or Louisiana. You’re running an unacceptably increased risk of getting cancer just by not living in Hawaii or California.


    Radioactivity is extremely easy to detect at minute and harmless quantities (literally everything is radioactive to some extent – or things like C14 dating would be impossible), compared to most other carcinogenic substances that require a whole laboratory to detect even rather large and dangerous concentrations and you can only ever find the chemical you are actually expecting to see and test for.

    With radioactivity, all you need is a little beeping box to detect almost all  radioactive substances, no matter what they are. When people were looking in Tokyo for radioactive fallout (Cs-137) they found old bottles of radium paint. If you are looking for benzene in water that is contaminated with arsenic, you’ll find nothing and wrongly claim it is safe. You’d have to test for a huge array of poisonous substances to be reasonable sure about the safety. Outside Star Trek there is no such thing as a Tricorder that can detect things like benzene at the small concentrations it takes for them to be dangerous.

    Radioactivity is the most visible and most talked about single source of cancer in the public by a long shot. It’s the same story with the fact that driving to the airport in your car is much more dangerous than flying with the airplane – which is what people are much more worried about, because every accident is highly public. So you wonder why people who got in contact with radioactivity are worried way more than is justified by the actual risk they are running?

  2. Devastation Valentine

    Sirens sang and mountains roared
    Krakens rose in one accord
    Fate awakened on the run
    Devil kissed the rising sun

    Heroes stand on burning walls
    Ghosts at war in flaming halls
    Titan saviors facing sin
    Kamikazi lose or win

    Shaken, stirred, but doin’ fine
    Head above the waterline
    Toxic whipping wind divine
    Devastation Valentine

    Blind to where they’re goin’ now
    Bow to bones that fed the plow
    Fear has fled from men resigned
    Father time cannot rewind

    One more day to do or die
    Calm the way of samurai
    Power greater than the pain
    Of child’s play in acid rain

    Shaken, stirred, but doin’ fine
    Head above the waterline
    Toxic whipping wind divine
    Devastation Valentine

    Overtime to cool a tomb
    Pray the cherry blossoms bloom
    Lives in trade ’til evils past
    Bravery’s greatest living cast

    Ne’er a one a run away
    Honor is the only play
    Raise a pillar to the deed
    Final gift to those in need

    Shaken, stirred, but doin’ fine
    Heads above the waterline
    Toxic whipping wind divine
    Devastation Valentine

  3. Strong bullshit alert needed here: “radiophobia” has been floated for years as a means of discrediting the people on the ground with radiation sicknesses.  It’s all in their heads, see.  One of your articles includes this odious sentence in its summary:

    ” Cognitive impairments in highly exposed cleanup workers have been reported by Ukrainian researchers, but these findings have not been independently confirmed.”

    Translation: the IAEA denies it, and we know how “independent” the IAEA is, right? That body that covered up the 1995 WHO investigation of Chernobyl by 700 doctors and researchers?  That body whose mission is the promotion of nuclear power worldwide.

    More than 5000 studies on the health damage from Chernobyl don’t count as “independent” in some quarters. As I said, strong bullshit alert whenever people minimize the damage from nuclear catastrophes.  There has been an extensive cover up, be aware.

    The Future Children of Fukushima

  4. Obviously this only addresses the Mental Health aspect in Japan which is certainly a problem. But what about the RADIATION? What about the PLUTONIUM spewing  from Daiichi NNP’s right now??? Spin and shift the truth all you want…the REAL consequences will come in the form of infant deformities, increased cancers and 
    D E A T H.  (Japanese Gov are hiding those #’s right now) 

      “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
      Arundhati RoyJ


  5. Journalist Gregg Levine addressed some of the inaccuracies of the PBS Frontline story just today.

    An excellent quote from him:

    “Choosing instead to use the frame of the nuclear industry and the governments that seek its largess is not good journalism because it has the potential to do much harm.”

    Any journalism that is downplaying the dangers of radiation or not honest in their facts about nuclear energy is doing harm to humanity.


  6. I love boing boing and have been reading it for ages. I disagree with Maggie Koerth-Baker and her support of nuclear power as a sane energy solution and see this article about mental health and Fukushima as playing directly into the strategy of downplaying the effects of radiation the citizens of Japan and the world are, and will continue to be, exposed to. The Japanese government had a media blitz after Fukushima that was basically – if you keep a good attitude you will stay healthy. Maggie argues her support of nuclear power  by packaging our future nuclear power as less lethal, miniaturized and localized and used in conjunction with solar, wind, tidal etc. A nicer smaller Nuke holding glowing hands with everyone. The truth is sustainability and nuclear power go together like sheep’s clothing and wolves go together. Nukes are great until they are profoundly abysmal and therein lies the problem. The downside statistically must occur. When it comes to nukes this is not a reasonable downside. Scientist who have studied nuclear power and believe in it seemingly do not have a rational ability to process this simple fact of odds and so turn to desperate measures when their innate support for nukes is challenged. How many Fukushimas, TMIs and Chernobyls do we need before the community of scientist who rationalize trade offs of power for mass die offs of animals, sickening of entire populations, birth defects 8000 sq. miles of irradiated wasteland and on and on before they change their minds. I am afraid at least several more. I would give it two more Fukushimas maybe three for scientist who support nukes to begin to buckle. So until then, put me in my straight jacket and throw away the key. The dead canaries are not in a coal mine, the stillborn calfs are not in a barren field, they are all born in my irrational fear and mental decay.

  7. Quite relevant as those I lived with in Fukushima are in a state of shock and trauma still, not to exaggerate. I lived in Minamisoma and lost family, those still there drive past thousands of destroyed homes to their job every day. My old girlfriend lives a sort of manic intensely busy life in reaction and perhaps to avoid dealing with things too directly.
    Obviously I’m not living there anymore-and I aiint happy bout dat(devastated really, but what does one do)

    As for the mental health of individuals in Japan and the health of the nation-it’s still going on. 

    In fact, it has some strong parallels with post-US nuclear genocide at Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the population is dismayed, further humbled, forced into a sort of isolation state akin to post-nuclear assault.

     People in general have the underlying fears of health effects. The further stress of knowing the situation is overwhelming and the stress of rebuilding that all citizens feel a responsibility to contribute and work harder. Mention the events(and piss-poor handling of) and all Japanese are sad, stressed and a bit overwhelmed.

    1. workin, I respect how you can respond to this article at face value and discuss the reality of mental health in relation to disaster. I respect this and I also understand that the issue is very real and not to be ignored. I however have chosen to interpret the role of the post in the context of Fukushima and the massive PR offensive to downplay the real impact of the disaster. Maybe Maggie Koerth-Baker who supports nuclear energy is only trying to help the people of Fukushima figure out why they feel so bad. I honestly cannot know. Maybe you wonder why downplay the impact of Fukushima? I would argue because mass panic and economic collapse would ensue if Tokyo were evacuated. Measurements in the city are as high as no go zones in Chernobyl. If Tokyo were evacuated  the nuclear industry would suffer and thereby the nuclear weapons industry would suffer. So the distracting noise is made and the sources of human suffering are multiplied in the media to viruses mental health etc. while any focus on radiation as a source of death or disease is downplayed and minimised. These articles about mental illness may contain some truth but at this moment in history that take on the disaster functions as the inflated noise and static of a relatively small issue surrounding the disaster. This noise crowds out the real pressing issue of human survival. It places doubt where doubt is all that is needed.

  8. The Fukushima disaster changed my life completely.  I live in Yokohama, and evacuated to the US for a month on March 18 with wife and young daughter.  We are back now in Yokohama, but are slowly coming to terms with the probability that we have to move.  Maybe there is nothing to worry about.  Maybe I will die in a car crash before I die from hot-particle induced cancer.  But the fear eats at you all the time, and that is no way to live.
    If we could see the radiation it might help, but until someone mass-produces radiation-viewing devices (maybe like those night-vision goggles the military uses) we just have no way of knowing what is “hot”.  This ignorance galls, and gnaws at you from the gut, and you spend weeks ignoring the problems up North, and then days clear-cutting the internet for Fukushima articles and discussions. 
    So it pulls you apart, and meanwhile you are trying to provide a safe environment for a child…
    It’s enough to make you weep. 
    And I am American, willing to talk about my feelings.  That isn’t the case for many over here, I think.  There is some serious stoic fatalism going on.
    Isn’t there a better way to generate electricity?  Is it really worth the risk?  Nothing is fail-safe.  So why make something that, when it fails, screws you for hundreds of years?  At least the earthquake/tsunami was over and done almost immediately.  You survived or you didn’t.  You lost your house or you didn’t.  With this radiation problem, it never goes away.  The worry will be there until there is a cure for cancer.
    If you feel that the new nuclear technology is “safe” please remember that accidents always happen, always.  That’s just the way it is.  Someday, one of those “safe” reactors will be smashed by an asteroid, and the containment will be breached and then you lose.  Why take the risk?  We don’t have to: we already have a perfectly good nuclear reactor up in the sky, 93 million miles away, pouring out lovely light and heat. 
    I love radiation, use it everyday.  But that doesn’t mean I want to sleep with it!

  9. I’d encourage everyone interested in how we got here to read Greg Palast’s Vulture’s Picnic — he’s done deep digging on the business of Energy.  Cronyism and greed are as much to blame as anything when it comes to the all the safety failures that cost real lives.   I gather that most of the backup generators in the US would likely fail if they were needed immediately… that’s not encouraging.

    The Deepwater Horizon spill, Fukishima and even the San Bruno gas line explosion can all be attributed to proper safety standards not being met — with violations either being covered up, or deregulated.  It’s a slippery slope, this awakening — but now that we all are starting to get that those Wall Street bankers at the very top really didn’t have any interest in doing the right thing, we’ll understand the same goes for the top Profiteers of Energy.

    I almost think it’s hopeless sometimes – wanting governments to be better regulators.  Instead, they raise the acceptable levels of radiation exposure.

    But then I remember safecast.org — true Boing Boing minded, citizen empowered, technology using solutions to real problems… and I know that tomorrow will be okay…  now, it looks like we’re going to have to get more scanners out to the rest of the world!

  10. I’m sure that the European Green Party is also part of the conspiracy to downplay the effect of Chernobyl and hide the millions of dead that were predicted by Greenpeace in 1986.


    How is it possible *not* to be accused of downplaying anything, when the only point of reference is the worst scenario you ever heard of?

    1. Two things, The information in the article states

      > Collective doses from Chernobyl’s fallout to populations in the rest of the world, especially in western Europe, are twice those to populations in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. This means that these populations will suffer twice as many predicted excess cancer deaths, as the populations in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. The failure to examine Chernobyl’s effects in the other countries ( besides Belarus, Ukraine and Russia) does not lie with the scientific teams but within the policy-making bodies of IAEA and WHO. In order to rectify this omission, we recommend that the WHO, independently of the IAEA, should commission a report to examine Chernobyl’s fallout, collective doses and effects in the rest of the world, particularly in western Europe.How is it possible *not* to be accused of downplaying anything, when the only point of reference is the worst scenario you ever heard of?<

      It is not possible to avoid being accused of anything ever. This is why accusations require some level of proof and actionable information to be taken seriously.

      The information I have taken in responding to this post as in keeping with the push to downplay the incident is that the author has cited sources that are stating that there is no real significant threat from Fukushima and that radiation levels are low outside the immediate area while not reporting alternative sources of information ( and measurements ) that are saying the situation is way worse than the official bodies are letting on.

      The author does not include Arnie Gunderson, for example, as an educated and informed source that is highly reputable and speaking in direct contrast to the monied interest and official bodies of the NRC TEPCO and others. Nevermind Helen Caldicot or mothers from Tokyo who have youtubes of sick children.

      Boing Boing is a platform being used to normalize notions of the Fukushima meltdowns as not significant while also a forum to introduce and discuss the psychology of radiation in relation to the incident. This is not balanced by any stretch of the imagination nor does it have to be. It is at least democratic in that I can come here and make a comment with some alternative takes on the whole issue and it does not get deleted. That is more than I can say for other sites.

  11. To what extent are the psychological effects ameliorated (or exacerbated) by and understanding  of the science of nuclear power, radiaiton’s effects on the body, and so on? Are nuclear engineers and radiologists less affected?

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