Radiation Makes People Invisible (Part 3)
This is part three of a 3 part series to run Mon-Wed this week. Dr. Robert Jacobs of the Hiroshima Peace Institute (and SimplyInfo member) authored the series.
Radiation Makes People Invisible
Becoming medical subjects– Many people who have been exposed to radiation then become the subjects of medical studies, often with no information about the medical tests to which they are subjected. Hibakusha of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki became medical subjects of the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission during the American occupation of Japan after World War Two. This study has continued to this day under the now jointly US-Japan operated Radiation Effects Research Foundation. In the early days of the study Japanese hibakusha had no choice about being subjected to the medical exams. An American military jeep would appear in front of their homes and they had to go in for an examination, whether it was a good time or not. They were not given information about the results of their tests. This has happened in many radiation-affected communities. In 1966 a US nuclear bomber blew up in midair and its debris fell on the small village of Palomares, Spain. Four H-bombs fell from the plane, one into the sea, and three onto the small village. None exploded but two broke open and contaminated part of the town with plutonium and other radionuclides. To this day some of the residents of Palomares are taken to Madrid each year for a medical examination as the effects of exposure on their health is tracked. They have never been given any of the results of the tests nor informed if any illnesses they develop were related to their exposures. They are subjects, not participants in the gathering and assessing of the effects of radiation on their bodies. There is no doubt that such studies contribute data to our understanding of the health consequences of radiation exposures (the data itself is contentious for reasons that I won’t go into here), however for those from whom the information is gathered, being studied but not informed reduces one’s sense of integrity and agency in one’s own health maintenance. Many Pacific islanders exposed to radiation by the nuclear tests of the US, the UK and France had such experiences where they were examined and then sent off with no access to the results. Many report feeling as if the data had been harvested from them.
Anxiety– Often the first thing that those exposed to radiation are told is that they have nothing to worry about. Their anxieties are belittled. Radiation is a very abstract and difficult thing to understand. It is imperceptible – tasteless, odorless, invisible – adding to uncertainty that people feel about whether they were exposed, how much they were exposed to, and whether they and their loved ones will suffer any health effects. The dismissal of their anxieties by medical and governmental authorities only compounds their anxiety. When other members of their community develop health problems, such as thyroid cancer and other illnesses years later it can cast a pall over their own sense of wellbeing for the rest of their lives. Every time that they run a fever, every time that they experience pain in their stomachs, nosebleeds, and other common ailments this anxiety rears up and they think – this is it, it’s finally got me. These fears extend to their parents, their children and other loved ones. Every fever that their child runs triggers horrible fears that their child will die. Sadako was healthy for nine years following her exposure to radiation when she was two years old in Hiroshima. Then suddenly her neck began to swell and she was soon diagnosed with leukemia. This is the nightmare world that the parents of children exposed to radiation experience on a daily basis. Every ailment can rip them apart.
Radiophobia and blaming the victim– Since it is often the case that who is and isn’t exposed to radiation, especially to internalized alpha emitting particles, is unknown, large numbers of people near a nuclear detonation, a nuclear production plant, a nuclear power plant accident, a uranium mining location and countless other sources of exposure to radiation worry about their health and the health of their loved ones. Among this group, some have been exposed and some have not. The uncertainty is part of the trauma. Often, as is currently the case for the people of Northern Japan, all of these people are dismissed as having undue fear of radiation, and are often told that their health problems are the result of their own anxieties. In some cases that may well be true but it is beside the point. For those who have experienced some radiological catastrophe, who may have been removed from their homes and communities and lost those bonds and support systems, who are uncertain as to whether each flu or stomach ache is the harbinger of the end, and who cannot be certain that contamination from hard to find alpha emitting particles is still possible when their children play in the park, anxiety is the natural response. Even if it does cause health problems, it is not their fault: forces outside of their control have upended their lives and they now must live a life of uncertainty and often experience discrimination. Of course they are going to suffer from the anxiety that this situation produces. To blame them for this is to blame the victims in the situation and is a further form of traumatization.
Conclusions– Radiation makes people invisible. It makes them second class citizens who no longer have the expectation of being treated with dignity by their government, by those overseeing nuclear facilities near to them, by the military and nuclear industry engaged in practices that expose people to radiation, and often by their new neighbors when they become refugees. People exposed to radiation often lose their homes, either through forced removal or through contamination that makes living in them dangerous. They lose their livelihoods, their diets, their communities, and their traditions. They can lose the knowledge base that connects them to their land and insures their wellbeing. Radiation can cause health problems and death, and even when it doesn’t it can cause devastating anxiety and uncertainty that can become crippling. Often those exposed to radiation are blamed for all of the problems that follow their exposures. After a nuclear disaster we count the victims in terms of those who died but they are only a small fraction of the people who are truly victimized by the event. Countless more suffer the destruction of their communities, their families, and their wellbeing. The devastation that a nuclear disaster truly wreaks is unknowable.
The lives of those exposed to radiation, or those in areas affected by radiation but uncertain about their exposures, will never be the same. As Natalia Manzurova, one of the “liquidators” at Chernobyl said in an interview published two months after the Fukushima triple meltdowns:“Their lives will be divided into two parts: before and after Fukushima. They’ll worry about their health and their children’s health. The government will probably say there was not that much radiation and that it didn’t harm them. And the government will probably not compensate them for all that they’ve lost. What they lost can’t be calculated.”
(This article is condensed from a chapter from a book manuscript in preparation on the work of the Global Hibakusha Project by Dr. Robert Jacobs and Dr. Mick Broderick)
Robert Jacobs is an associate professor at the Hiroshima Peace Institute of Hiroshima City University in Japan.
This article would not be possible without the extensive efforts of the SimplyInfo research team
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