US media coverage of the nuclear disaster in Japan contains vanishingly little serious discussion of the human health risks posed by the radiation escaping from the Fukushima nuclear facility.
In place of a discussion informed by experts on these risks, journalism largely conveys vague, industry-friendly reassurances, frequently including no sources with expertise on the health effects of radiation on humans.
New York Times reporter William Broad reported (3/22/11) that "health experts" deemed a radiation plume that had reached the US from Japan to be harmless:
Who were Broad's "health experts"? He didn't name any, unless you count the Department of Energy, which is better known for promoting nuclear energy than for its medical expertise. Broad wrote that the DOE said that the radiation plumes, in his words, "posed no health hazard."
There is scientific disagreement about the risks of ionizing radiation. Some scientists hold that there's no evidence that low-level radiation is harmful (eg, Health Physics Society, 7/10), or insist, for instance, that the accidental radiation release at Three Mile Island caused little or no harm to humans (NRC Backgrounder, 8/09). But the prevailing scientific view is that there's no threshold below which radiation exposure is safe—in other words, that all radiation, including the ever-present background radiation, is a potential health risk—and that the risk decreases linearly, so that even decreasing a radiation dose by 99 percent still leaves 1 percent of the risk. According to this "linear, no-threshold" model of radiation risk, a given amount of human radiation exposure will produce the same number of cancers, no matter how many people it is distributed among.
In 2006, the National Academy of Sciences concluded, in the final paragraph of its 323-page report on the biological effect of ionizing radiation, that current scientific evidence "is consistent with the hypothesis that there is a linear, no-threshold dose-response relationship between exposure to ionizing radiation and the development of cancer in humans."
An Extra! survey of New York Times and Washington Post coverage and commentary on the first eight days of the Fukushima story found that Broad's reporting was typical. Out of 89 Fukushima articles appearing in the two papers during the period (3/12–19/11), no story mentioned the NAS's conclusions specifically, nor generally described the notion that there was no safe level of radiation exposure.
Just 6 percent of total sources were presented as health experts—that is, medical or scientific experts with specialized knowledge of the effects of ionizing radiation on humans—and of these, only two-thirds were actually identified by name. These sources were used to comment on, for instance, comparisons between the Fukushima and Chernobyl accidents, the wisdom of taking iodine to ward off thyroid cancer, whether or not Japanese imports posed a threat to the US, and the levels of radiation exposure facing Japanese reactor workers and civilians.
With few exceptions, these sources did not play down radiation risks in Japan, but neither paper cited a single health expert warning that radiation from Japan might pose any real threat to the United States. For instance, regarding the radioactive plume passing over the US from Japan, the Times (3/19/11) quoted a spokesperson from the California Department of Public Health saying that "all data from state and federal sources show that harmful levels of radiation won't reach California."
In the case of the unnamed experts, identified, for instance, as "health experts," "scientists" or "studies," it wasn't clear that the journalists had actually consulted with sources. For instance, the Times (3/17/11) reported, "Health and nuclear experts emphasize that radiation in the plume will be diluted as it travels and, at worst, would have extremely minor health consequences in the United States, even if hints of it are ultimately detectable."
So dismissive was the coverage of health concerns that among articles that mentioned radiation and human health issues, just 30 percent (17 of 57) included one or more sources identified or presented as a health experts including unnamed sources—a rate that held constant in both papers.
Reassuring claims were often attributed to sources with no identified expertise in relevant scientific fields, as in a Times article (3/16/11) that reported that "experts say" Japanese officials had "taken precautions" concerning public health that would prevent Fukushima from "becoming another Chernobyl, even if additional radiation is released."
Journalists may like to seek simple (and reassuring) answers from "science," but science is rarely so straightforward. A 1990 Columbia University study found that local increases in cancers following the Three Mile Island accident couldn't be conclusively attributed to radiation releases (American Journal of Epidemiology, 9/90). But a 1997 follow-up by the University of North Carolina, led by epidemiologist Steve Wing (see "Coverage of Radiation Risks 'Astonishingly Irresponsible,'" Extra!, 7/11), faulted the Columbia researchers, whose court-ordered study allowed insurance companies to influence scientific questions, for accepting unreasonably low assumptions about the magnitude of radiation releases in the disaster. Wing’s team concluded that the releases had contributed to cancer increases (Environmental Health Perspectives, 1/97). Corporate journalists, however, virtually always reflect the Columbia study’s findings (eg, Associated Press, 3/16/11; Washington Post, 9/14/10).
Even within scientific circles that acknowledge the harmful effects of low-level radiation, there is a spectrum of views. The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation Chernobyl assessment (2008) predicted 6,000 additional cases of thyroid cancer, but little other low-level radiation damage to people. Using some of the same data, the Union of Concerned Scientists (4/22/11) predicted that Chernobyl would end up causing 50,000 excess cancers, and 25,000 additional deaths. A large array of scientific publications assessed in the book Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment (New York Academy of Sciences, 2009) suggested that Chernobyl has already contributed to hundreds of thousands of excess deaths.
While it might be beyond the abilities of daily journalists to determine who is right in these scientific disagreements, it's not hard to convey that they exist, a fact that would be hard to glean from corporate media. But the short history of scientific literature about the effects of ionizing radiation on humans demonstrates that the scientists who have urged more caution have had their views vindicated over time.
For decades, distinguished scientists who insisted, contra industry claims, that there was no safe level of radiation exposure suffered professional marginalization for challenging the nuclear establishment. The late nuclear chemist and medical researcher John Gofman first argued against the notion there were safe levels of radiation in the 1960s as the director of the Biomedical Research Division at the DOE's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. Gofman’s clashes with the DOE over its notions of safe radiation levels resulted in his being stripped of research funding and his departure from Livermore in the early 1970s.
However, in recent years several major scientific organizations have adopted the views of Gofman and his colleagues. In addition to the NAS, Gofman's no-threshold model has been adopted by the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (2000), the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (2001) and the United States Research Council (an arm of the NAS, 2004), among others.
In reporting on technical scientific issues such as radiation effects, journalists inexpert in the relevant fields of science are wrong to take sides. The best they can do is to inform readers on the range of opinions and the track records and relative independence of the researchers behind them. This is clearly not being done with regard to the Fukushima fallout—a failing that could have dangerous consequences.