By Michael Smith, North American Correspondent, MedPage Today
Published: December 19, 2011
The U.S. appears to have suffered about 14,000 excess deaths in the period after the Japanese Fukushima nuclear plant was severely damaged, researchers said.
The finding, which is the latest report from researchers who have repeatedly sounded alarms about risks from Fukushima, was based on CDC data on deaths in a set of U.S. cities from March 20 to June 25 – a 14-week period starting after the radioactivity released from the reactor on March 11 has reached the U.S., according to Joseph Mangano, MPH, of the non-profit Radiation and Public Health Project, based on Ocean City, N.J., and author Janette Sherman, MD.
Over that period, the number of deaths, compared with the same period in 2010, was up 4.46%, Mangano and Sherman reported online in the International Journal of Health Services.
In contrast, during the 14 previous weeks, deaths in the reported cities rose 2.34% compared with the same period in 2010 – yielding an “excess” of 3,286 deaths, Mangano and Sherman reported.
Extrapolated to the whole country, they said, that works out to “a projected 13,983 excess U.S. deaths” during those 14 weeks.
In a telephone press conference, Mangano said the finding is a “clarion call for more extensive research.”
But he told MedPage Today that the researchers can't rule out factors other than the Fukushima radiation that might have accounted for the excess.
“There are probably a variety of factors that could be linked to this excess of 14,000 deaths,” he said. “But it does raise a red flag.”
On the contrary, any link between the deaths and the radiation released by the reactors is “very, very unlikely” simply because the levels are low, according to Richard Morin, PhD, of the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla.
Morin told MedPage Today that such an acute effect would be unlikely, unless radiation levels were four or five orders of magnitude higher than those reported by Mangano and Sherman, and the whole body of the victim was exposed.
Typically, he said, the effect of low-level ionizing radiation doesn't appear until years after the exposure.
Morin, who is chair of the American College of Radiology's safety committee, said an earlier public report by the authors on the same issue – preceding the journal article – “has not been taken seriously by the scientific community.”
He added it's important to remember that “association doesn't imply causation.”
The CDC collects data on deaths in 122 U.S. cities with populations over 100,000, representing about 25% to 35% of the nation's deaths, Mangano and Sherman noted.
For the 14-week period after March 20, the year-over-year comparison excluded Fort Worth, New Orleans, and Phoenix because deaths in more than half of the weeks were reported as unavailable, the researchers said.
For the period before March 20, the comparison only included 104 of the 122 cities; excluded were Baton Rouge; Bridgeport, Conn.; Camden, N.J.; Charlotte, N.C.; Chicago; Cincinnati; Detroit; Fort Worth; Miami; New Orleans; Pasadena; Peoria; Phoenix; Pittsburgh; Rochester, N.Y.; Trenton, N.J.; Washington; and Wichita, Kan.
The researchers did not report conducting a sensitivity analysis with the missing cities included to see if they outcome would change.
The researchers also reported that some EPA samples of precipitation, air, water, and milk showed levels of radioactivity “hundreds of times above normal.”
But, they said, the number of samples is small, which “prohibits any credible analysis of temporal trends and spatial comparisons.”
Primary source: International Journal of Health Services
Mangano JJ, Sherman JD “An unexpected mortality increase in the United States follows arrival of the radioactive plume from Fukushima: is there a correlation?” Int J Health Services 2012; 42(1): 47–64.