The Physics Police

The Physics Police

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Fukushima's Children are Safe

posted an op-ed on EcoWatch with the outrageous title Fukushima's Children are Dying wherein he claims:
More than 48 percent of some 375,000 young people—nearly 200,000 kids—tested by the Fukushima Medical University near the smoldering reactors now suffer from pre-cancerous thyroid abnormalities, primarily nodules and cysts.
These blatantly misrepresented and severely up-rounded numbers come from a recent health survey conducted by the Japanese government. In the survey, kids from the Fukushima area underwent ultrasound thyroid screening.

Only 2,070 of the 295,511 participants had significant thyroid nodules. This is consistent with the worldwide average prevalence of such nodules in children, between 0.2% and 5%.

These poor kids had a follow-up screening. Those that still had nodules underwent biopsy. In the end, only 91 cases were found to be malignant or suspicious.

This rate is very low when you consider upwards of 50% of children with symptomatic nodular thyroid enlargement end up diagnosed with thyroid carcinoma. In this Japanese health survey, the ratio was 4.4%, ten times lower.

Why was the false positive rate so high in this screening? Because of something called selection bias.

Whenever a healthy population is screened for disease you get a higher rate of false positives than for an unscreened population, who aren't tested unless they come to their doctor with symptoms. This is because the rate of disease is higher among patients with symptoms than it is for the entire screened population.

If we screened everyone as thoroughly as the Japanese government screened these kids from Fukushima, we'd expect to find the same high rate of false-positive nodules, and the same low rate of true-positive carcinomas. Luckily, childhood thyroid cancer is very rare and has a long-term survival rates greater than 95%.

The Japanese government is screening kids for safety. They have NOT found an elevated rate of precancerous thyroid abnormalities. Many of Fukushima's children have been displaced from their homes to keep them safe.

They're safe. Not dying.

1 comment:

  1. I have more to say:

    Dear Harvey Wasserman,

    Above I pointed out the factual errors in your article. But the article is deeply shameful for a whole different reason. Fukushima's children aren't dying from radiation, but thousands were washed out to sea during the tsunami triggered by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake. 15,887 men, women, and children died horribly and were quickly forgotten. What about the 1,580 children who lost one or both parents in the tsunami? If you care about Fukushima's children, why not write an article about them? Why not write about how difficult it is for the 100,000 kids uprooted from their homes because of the whole disaster. Why this fetish with exposure to radiation? [1]

    Even if the worst-case predictions of increased thyroid cancer risk are realized, the lifetime cancer risk for an individual from the highest risk category is only increased by 0.5%. [2] The variance in life expectancy from socioeconomic status is far greater. [4] Why not write an article about poverty? Suicide is still the leading cause of death for women age 15 to 34 in Japan. [3] Why not write about suicide prevention?

    This voyeuristic obsession with radiation is not only ignorant. It's profoundly insulting to the families effected by real tragedies, like the tsunami, evacuation, poverty, and depression. Not to mention drunk driving, drug and alcohol addiction, smoking, malnutrition, preventable disease, violence, etc. Each of these poses a greater risk to Fukushima's children than does radiation-caused thyroid cancer.

    I know writing about radiation and caner is more appealing to the Neo Luddites and paranoid conspiracy theorist. That's why article is so shameful! It's lowest common denominator fear mongering. Harvey Wasserman, if you have any dignity left, now's the time to show it. Acknowledge the factual errors. Decry the conspiracy theories. And please, get back to what you're good at: promoting democracy, renewable energy, and environmentalism. Those are things worth fighting for. Fear is not.