Is the increase in baby deaths in the northwest U.S. due to Fukushima fallout? How can we find out?
Janette D. Sherman, MD, Joseph Mangano, MPH, MBA
U.S. babies are dying at an increased rate. While the United States spends billions on medical care, as of 2006, the U.S. ranked 28th in the world in infant mortality, more than twice that of the lowest ranked countries. (See Table 20, page 131, “Health, United States, 2010,” issued by the Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and the National Center for Health Statistics in February 2011.)
The recent CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report indicates that eight cities in the northwest U.S. – Boise, Idaho; Seattle, Wash.; Portland, Ore.; plus the northern California cities of Santa Cruz, Sacramento, San Francisco, San Jose and Berkeley – reported the following data on deaths among those younger than one year of age:
- 4 weeks ending March 19, 2011: 37 deaths (average 9.25 per week)
- 10 weeks ending May 28, 2011: 125 deaths (average 12.50 per week)
This amounts to an increase of 35 percent – the total for the entire U.S. rose about 2.3 percent – and is statistically significant. Of further significance is that those dates include the four weeks before and the 10 weeks after the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant disaster. In 2001 U.S. infant mortality was 6.834 per 1,000 live births, increasing to 6.845 in 2007. All years from 2002 to 2007 were higher than the 2001 rate.
We have learned that there was a delay and false statements in releasing data about the amount of radiation coming from the Fukushima reactors. We know that huge amounts of radioactivity continue to pour into the Pacific Ocean, that winds and ocean currents flow from west to east, and that multiple news sources report radioactive cesium and iodine in milk, fruit and vegetables in the U.S. Adding to the problem of knowing the level of radioactive releases is that often amounts have been calculated, rather than actually measured.
Spewing from the Fukushima reactor are radioactive isotopes including those of iodine (I-131), strontium (Sr-90) and cesium (Cs-134 and Cs-137), all of which are taken up in food and water. Iodine is concentrated in the thyroid, Sr-90 in bones and teeth, and Cs-134 and Cs-137 in soft tissues, including the heart. The unborn and babies are more vulnerable because the cells are rapidly dividing and the delivered dose is proportionally larger than that delivered to an adult.
Data from Chernobyl, which exploded 25 years ago, clearly shows increased numbers of sick and weak newborns and increased numbers of deaths in the unborn and newborns, especially soon after the meltdown. These occurred in Europe as well as the former Soviet Union. Similar findings are also seen in wildlife living in areas with increased radioactive fallout levels. (See “Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment” by Alexey V. Yablokov, Vassily B. Nesterenko and Alexey V. Nesterenko. Consulting Editor Janette D. Sherman-Nevinger. New York Academy of Sciences, 2009.)
Levels of radioisotopes were measured in children who had died in the Minsk area that had received Chernobyl fallout. The cardiac findings were the same as those seen in test animals that had been administered Cs-137. (See “Pathology of Incorporated Ionizing Radiation” by Y.I. Bandashevsky, Belarus Technical University, Minsk, 136 pages, 1999. For his pioneering work, Professor Bandashevsky was arrested in 2001 and imprisoned for five years of an eight-year sentence.)
The national low-weight (under 2,500 grams, or 5.5 pounds) rate has risen 23 percent from 1984 to 2006. Nearly 400,000 infants are born under 2,500 grams each year in the U.S. Most of the increase in infant mortality is due specifically to infants born weighing less than 750 grams (1 pound, 10½ ounces). Multiple births commonly result in underweight babies, but most of the increase in births at less than 750 grams occurred among singletons and among mothers 20-34 years of age. (See CDC’s “National Vital Statistics Report,” 52 (12): 1-24, 2005.) Pre-term births are higher for African American women – 17.8 percent compared to 11.5 percent for white women.
From an obstetrical point of view, women in the age bracket 20 to 34 are those most physically able to deliver a healthy child. So what has gone wrong? Clues to causation are often revealed when there is a change in incidence, a suspicious geographical distribution, and/or an increase in hazards known to adversely affect health and development.
The risk of having a baby with birth defects is estimated at three to four of every 100 babies born. As of 2005, the Institute of Medicine estimated the cost of pre-term births in the U.S. at more than $2.6 billion, or $51,600 for each infant.
Low birth weight babies, born too soon and too small, face a lifetime of health problems, including cerebral palsy and behavioral and learning problems, placing enormous physical, emotional and economic burdens on society as a whole and on those caring for them. Death of a young child is devastating to a family.
As of June 5, 2011, The Japan Times reported that radiation in the No. 1 Fukushima plant was measured at 4,000 milliseverts per hour. To put that in perspective, a worker would receive a maximal “permissible” dose in four minutes. In addition, there are over 40,000 tons of radioactive water under that reactor with more radioactivity escaping into the air and sea. Fuel rods are believed to have melted and sunk to the bottom of reactors 1, 2 and 3.
Tepco, the corporate owner, took more than two months to confirm the meltdowns and admitted lying about the levels of destruction and subsequent contamination, resulting in “public distrust.” Over 100,000 tons of radioactive water are on the site.
“Once in seawater, radiation can hurt ocean animals in several ways – by killing them outright, creating ‘bizarre mutations’ in their offspring or passing radioactive material up the food chain,” reports National Geographic.
Adding to the problem of actual levels of radioactive releases is that often amounts have been calculated, rather than measured.
How do we find out if there is a link between Fukushima and the death of children? By measuring the actual levels of isotopes in the environment and in the bodies of people exposed and to do this now in Japan and in the U.S. The research is not technically difficult. The political and economic barriers may be greater. Bandshevsky and others did it and confirmed a connection. The information is available in the Chernobyl book cited above.
The biological findings of Chernobyl cannot be ignored: Isotope incorporation will determine the future of all life on earth – animal, fish, bird, plant and human. It is crucial to know this information if we are to avoid further catastrophic damage.
Janette Sherman is an internist and toxicologist and contributing editor of the book, “Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment.” Visit her website, at www.janettesherman.com. Joseph Mangano is an epidemiologist and executive director of the Radiation and Public Health Project research group,www.radiation.org.