Home > News
  print button email button

Sunday, Sep. 11, 2011

Not enough whole body counters to go around

Public denied access to devices that check internal radiation levels

Staff writer

The health department in Kashiwa, a city in Chiba Prefecture with multiple radiation hot spots, has received numerous inquiries from worried residents wanting to find out their internal radiation levels.

News photo
The inside story: A man sits on a whole body counter in the city of Fukushima in late July to check for internal radiation. KYODO

Kashiwa official Seiichi So meya says he understands their concerns, especially when it involves parents with small children, but he still has to ask them to wait.

"We want to (conduct radiation checks) and are holding discussions with a radiation research institute, but there is no concrete plan yet," he said.

People who want to measure their internal radiation exposure are unlikely to have access to a whole body counter — the expensive high-tech piece of machinery used to check radiation inside the human body — unless, that is, they live in certain areas in Fukushima Prefecture.

A whole body counter is the only machine for measuring internal radiation, and typically comes in the shape of a chair or a bed, on which a person is required to either sit or lie still. The longer the person remains still, the more precise the device's reading becomes.

The Fukushima Prefectural Government conducted internal radiation exposure checks on about 3,000 people in Iitate, Na mie and part of Kawamata from late June to the end of August, in cooperation with radiation research institutes that own whole body counters.

Preliminary checks of 122 people in the prefecture from June 27 to mid-July found excessive internal radiation levels in some of the residents. The prefectural government disclosed the results of 109 people who underwent the checkup by July 10, and 58 of them had internal exposure exceeding the minimum detectable level — 320 becquerels of radioactive cesium- 134 and 570 becquerels of radioactive cesium-137.

The highest level found was about 4,000 becquerels of cesium- 137, which for adults roughly translates to 0.052 millisieverts over a person's entire life. The widely accepted threshold beyond which the risk of cancer increases is 100 millisieverts, but the health effects of small radiation doses remain unknown.

There are at least 106 whole body counters in Japan, according to research by a government panel on helping victims of the nuclear accident. Power companies have 49 of the machines at their nuclear plants, although four at the leaking Fukushima No. 1 complex, another four at the Fukushima No. 2 plant and one of the two devices at the Onagawa nuclear plant in Miyagi Prefecture were damaged in the March 11 disasters and are out of commission. Hospitals and research institutes own the rest.

Kazue Suzuki, a Greenpeace Japan official, has called for radiation checks using whole body counters to be carried out on everybody in Fukushima and its neighboring prefectures.

"We checked the urine of 10 randomly selected people in the city of Fukushima, which is not designated as an area where residents have to evacuate, and all 10 of the samples were found to contain radioactive cesium. That's a big warning sign," Susuki said.

But municipalities outside Fukushima Prefecture haven't been checking residents' internal radiation levels and have no plans to do so anytime soon, claiming it is an unnecessary measure.

"The central government leaves the decision on checking residents' internal exposure up to municipalities," said Hirotaka Oku of the technology ministry, adding that it has no plans to order or import any whole body counters.

As for companies and institutions that own whole body counters, the devices are only used on those who are strongly suspected of having been exposed to excessive radiation, and not in low-risk cases involving healthy people who want to learn their level of exposure.

Hospitals may also be unwilling to provide radiation checks for healthy people. For example, Kitasato University Hospital in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, has a whole body counter, but says on its website that it only treats patients who are known to have been overexposed to radiation. The hospital doesn't accept requests from healthy people who just want to check their internal radiation level, according to its website.

Although high levels of radiation have been detected in northwest Chiba Prefecture, there are no plans to check residents' internal radiation levels, said Keiko Inoue, an official in the prefectural government's health section.

"We will monitor the results of Fukushima's radiation checks," Inoue said.

Masahiro Fukushi, a radiation professor at Tokyo Metropolitan University, said checks using a whole body counter on residents in Kashiwa — even though radiation levels in the city are higher than most parts of Japan, excluding Fukushima Prefecture ? would be ineffective, as their level of exposure is too low for the device to record accurately.

"If a person sits still on a whole body counter for 24 hours, the result may be precise, but (a 24-hour test) is highly unrealistic," Fukushi said.

In Tokyo, meanwhile, metropolitan government official Shigenobu Nakamura said the city's radiation levels in the atmosphere, soil, water and food are so low that checking residents' internal radiation levels is at present unnecessary.

"But if radiation in food and the environment increases, we will consider checking internal doses," he added.

While worried parents can't rely on municipalities to check them and their children for internal radiation exposure — except in Fukushima Prefecture ? and are unlikely to persuade institutes that own whole body counters to use the devices on them, there could be a more fundamental problem — Japan may not have enough whole body counters in working order.

Besides the nine unusable ones at nuclear plants in Fukushima and Miyagi prefectures, it is unknown how many of the other machines are currently out of order, said Shozo Hongo, a spokesman for the National Institute of Radiological Science.

The institute, which helped Fukushima Prefecture carry out its preliminary checks on 122 residents, has three whole body counters, but only one of them is suitable for people who aren't engaged in work — or affected by other factors — that could put them at a higher risk of radiation exposure, Hongo said.

The second device is for research purposes only and can't be used on humans, while the results of the third whole body counter are at present imprecise and the machine must be thoroughly inspected, Hongo said.

Tokyo Electric Power Co., which has four whole body counters at its Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant in Niigata Prefecture, only uses them for workers at the plant and has no plans to make them available to the general public, said Hajime Motojuku, a spokesman for the utility.

Tepco's eight whole body counters at the Fukushima No.

1 and No. 2 plants are either still broken or don't produce reliable data due to high ambient radiation at the sites, according to research undertaken by the government's panel on helping nuclear accident victims.

However, "Not having enough whole body counters isn't a good enough excuse. The government can ask other countries to lend Japan the machines. I'm sure we would get plenty," said Greenpeace's Suzuki.

The Fukushima Prefectural Government's preliminary checks on 122 residents in Iitate, Namie and Kawamata were used to work out a smooth procedure for conducting the checkups.

Once the procedure was established, the prefecture conducted a second round of checkups on 2,800 residents from the three locations between July 11 and Aug. 31.

The prefecture notified residents of their exposure levels the same day they had their checkup, and plans to publicly announce the results later in September in a manner that will respect people's personal privacy, prefectural health official Yoshifumi Baba said.

The prefecture started a third round of checkups Sept. 1 and is currently measuring the internal radiation doses of 10 percent of residents in another seven municipalities.

The checks will be expanded in the future to cover more areas, according to Baba.

The Fukushima Municipal Government, meanwhile, plans to buy this year a vehicle with a whole body counter — costing ¥105 million — from U.S.-based maker Canberra, city official Tsuneyoshi Watanabe said.

The city will try to check all residents who wish to be tested, but will prioritize children and people who live in areas where especially high levels of radiation have been recorded.

Six Months After the Disaster

Six months on, few signs of recovery


Back to Top

About us |  Work for us |  Contact us |  Privacy policy |  Link policy |  Registration FAQ
Advertise in japantimes.co.jp.
This site has been optimized for modern browsers. Please make sure that Javascript is enabled in your browser's preferences.
The Japan Times Ltd. All rights reserved.