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Updated: March 25, 2011 15:54 IST

Radiation anxiety weighs on tsunami survivors

AP
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A mother feeds her baby at an evacuation center in Yamagata Prefecture, northern Japan. Hundreds of thousands remain homeless, squeezed into temporary shelters without heat, warm food or medicine and no idea what to call home after the March 11 tsunami swallowed up communities along the coast and dozens of strong aftershocks continued to shake the nation. Photo: AP.
A mother feeds her baby at an evacuation center in Yamagata Prefecture, northern Japan. Hundreds of thousands remain homeless, squeezed into temporary shelters without heat, warm food or medicine and no idea what to call home after the March 11 tsunami swallowed up communities along the coast and dozens of strong aftershocks continued to shake the nation. Photo: AP.

Already, experts are starting to focus on how "radiation anxiety" - the chronic stress, fear and worry that the mere thought of being exposed to radiation can cause - will impact the region’s long—term recovery.

Like characters from a science fiction film, the radiation screeners at this Japanese evacuation centre wear futuristic white suits, surgical masks and hoods. Silver gamma ray monitors gleam in their hands as they wand all who enter.

The sight alone is enough to make some children cry. Adults, too, say the uniforms and unfamiliar gizmos give them the shivers.

“It’s like a bad dream that won’t end,” construction worker Takeshi Nemoto said, cradling his four—year—old son.

The March 11 earthquake and tsunami caused massive death and destruction across north-eastern Japan. But those who live near the crippled Fukushima Dai—ichi nuclear plant face an additional burden - a fear of radiation that experts say could prove more unhealthy in the long run than the still—low levels of leaked radiation itself.

Already, experts are starting to focus on how “radiation anxiety” - the chronic stress, fear and worry that the mere thought of being exposed to radiation can cause - will impact the region’s long—term recovery.

“Our work is just beginning,” said psychiatrist Akinobu Hata, the director of the Fukushima Mental Health and Welfare Centre. “Right now people who have been through this disaster are living from moment to moment. But we expect the cases of depression and other mental illnesses to rise soon.”

The fear is palpable.

Frightened by the television news, Sumiko Matsuno, a farmer in Fukushima, went out into her fields on Thursday to frantically dig up all the vegetables she could.

“If it’s in the ground it’s still safe,” she said. “The leafy ones are no good anymore. We are digging up all our carrots and onions as fast as we can. We can’t sell them, but we need them ourselves for food. We are really worried about our future.”

In the evacuation centre, that feeling was shared by all.

“I have four children,” said Mie Sato, 36, who fled her home in the town of Minami Soma not because of the damage but due to the radiation warnings. “My oldest is pregnant, and I worry about what this will do to her baby. It’s just a big burden of anxiety that we all have to bear.”

That’s not to say the radiation leaked so far poses no danger whatsoever. Workers at the nuclear plant are exposed to dangerous doses as they try to make repairs. Vegetables and water in some areas, including the capital Tokyo, have tested higher for radioactive iodine than government standards allow.

But responders say those threats can be managed. And barring any more major problems at the power plant, most specialists say they do not expect radiation sickness to affect the population at large. So far, no radiation illness cases have been reported among the general public.

“We live in a world that has natural background radiation that’s many times greater than the amounts we’re talking about here,” said Harold Swartz, a professor at Dartmouth Medical School in the U.S.

Dr. Hata said that based on studies of previous disasters he expects about 10 percent of tsunami survivors to develop post—traumatic stress disorder.

With jobs, homes and loved ones lost, other mental problems could factor in as well as realities set in. Many people cannot even begin to search for bodies because the government has ordered everyone within 12 miles (20 kilometers) of the nuclear site to leave, and those within an added six—mile (10—kilometer) ring to stay indoors.

“What is unique about this crisis is that we have, on top of all the other suffering, this ongoing radiation issue,” Dr. Hata said. “We are dealing with an invisible enemy, one that people don’t understand well. That adds to the anxieties people already have.”

Evacuees from even the areas closest to the plant say that they knew virtually nothing about radioactivity before the current crisis. They look blankly at TV screens showing them updates of the radioactivity levels in their towns several times a day, not understanding what the readings mean.

Dr. Hata said efforts are being made to bring in more mental health counsellors to aid evacuees but that so far only two child psychologists were available to help.

“The evacuees hear lots of nervous news from Tokyo, which is upsetting,” Dr. Hata said. “And even when it’s good news, if it’s coming from people far away it doesn’t mean much to them. It’s crucial for these people to have someone to talk to face—to—face, someone who is experiencing it here with them.”

Aware of the growing emotional burden, officials running the evacuation centre have started trying to make the shelter less grim than it was in the first days.

A movie hour is being held for small children. On Thursday, a local restaurant brought in a van full of food and festival toys. Hiroki Miura, a local volunteer, blew up balloons and handed out yo—yos.

“We have to do something to keep their spirits up,” he said.

But many evacuees sat listlessly on their blankets or cardboard sheets.

“I can’t focus on anything. I just want to go home,” said Shigeko Sugioka, 64, who has been huddled in a corner of the centre for more than a week. “I’m so tired. We’ve been through so much.”

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