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Researchers Trumpet Another Flawed Fukushima Death Study

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Nuclear powerplant Temelin, Czech Republic

In June I wrote about a claim that babies in the U.S. were dying as a direct result of Fukushima radiation. A close look at the accusation revealed that the data used by the authors to make the argument showed no such thing. “That data is publicly available,” I wrote, “and a check reveals that the authors’ statistical claims are critically flawed—if not deliberate mistruths.” The authors appeared to start from a conclusion—babies are dying because of Fukushima radiation—and work backwards, torturing the data to fit their claims.

Now the authors have published a revised study (PDF) in the International Journal of Health Services. A press release published to herald the article warns, “14,000 U.S. Deaths Tied to Fukushima Fallout.” This is an alarming accusation. Let’s see how the authors defend it.

First, the authors assert: “In the United States, Fukushima fallout arrived just six days after the earthquake, tsunami, and meltdowns.” They provide no evidence for this assertion, no citation to back up their facts. The authors then note that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency monitored radioactivity in milk, water and air in the weeks and months following the disaster. Ah, here must be the data, the careful reader hopes. Alas, “the number of samples for which the EPA was able to detect measurable concentrations of radioactivity is relatively few,” the authors write. They then conclude, with evident disappointment, that “clearly, the 2011 EPA reports cannot be used with confidence for any comprehensive assessment of temporal trends and spatial patterns of U.S. environmental radiation levels originating in Japan.” In other words, the EPA didn’t find evidence for the plume that our entire argument depends on, so “clearly” we can’t trust the agency’s data.

Yet even if there isn’t evidence for a plume, where do all the dead people come from? Here, from the abstract, is the chain of reasoning: “U.S. health officials report weekly deaths by age in 122 cities, about 25 to 35 percent of the national total. Deaths rose 4.46 percent from 2010 to 2011 in the 14 weeks after the arrival of Japanese fallout, compared with a 2.34 percent increase in the prior 14 weeks….Projecting these figures for the entire United States yields 13,983 total deaths.” In sum: Sloppy statistics killed 14,000 people.

To unpack a little more, the authors take mortality figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports. I talk a little about these reports in my original piece. Suffice it to say that they are an incomplete record of deaths in the U.S. (as the authors acknowledge). The authors draw a hard line at the week of March 20, 2011, the 12th week of the year. They sum up all deaths around the country for both the 14 weeks preceding and the 14 weeks following March 20, 2011. They do the same for 2010. They find the CDC reports include 4.46 percent more dead people in the 14 weeks after March 20, 2011, than the reports did in the 14 weeks after March 20, 2010. The 14 weeks preceding March 20, 2011 (presumably before the radiation plume arrived and spread across the land) include only 2.34 percent more dead people than the 14 weeks preceding March 20, 2010. Since the CDC only reports on about 23.5 percent of all deaths, the authors claim, they helpfully multiply the supposed “excess” by 1/0.235 to arrive at the final number of 13,893 deaths.

No attempt is made at providing systematic error estimates, or error estimates of any kind. No attempt is made to catalog any biases that may have crept into the analysis, though a cursory look finds biases a-plenty (the authors are anti-nuclear activists unaffiliated with any research institution). The analysis assumes that the plume arrived on U.S. shores, spread everywhere, instantly, and started killing people immediately. It assumes that the “excess” deaths after March 20 are a real signal, not just a statistical aberration, and that every one of them is due to Fukushima radiation.

The publication of such sloppy, agenda-driven work is a shame. Certainly radiation from Fukushima is dangerous, and could very well lead to negative health effects—even across the Pacific. The world needs to have a serious discussion about what role nuclear power should play in a power-hungry post-Fukushima world. But serious, informed, fact-based debate is a difficult enough goal to achieve without having to shout above noise like this.

(Image by Li-sung at Wikipedia Commons.)

About the Author: Michael Moyer is the editor in charge of space and physics coverage at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @mmoyr.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. billyedtimmy 5:23 pm 12/20/2011

    The problem is, when the ‘authorities’ responsible for collecting and providing this data to the public unexpectedly remove or reduce their own sampling in the midst of a known release of radioactivity, how much reliability can those data present anyway? The onus then falls on far less consistent and experienced collectors to pick up the slack.

    Unfortunately, with or without the EPAs radnet data, data from a multitude of sources WILL continue to be collected (Cesium deposited on the West Coast won’t be going away anytime soon), so the empirical truth (one or the other) will eventually prevail.

    Despite the author’s valid skeptism 2 things should be kept in mind:
    (1) In a economically significant event like Fukushima, one can expect the truth to be delayed or suppressed by parties with a vested interest (e.g., TEPCO has consistently underreported and underestimated fallout in Japan, and time continues to reveal their untruths).
    (2) The precautionary principle should be applied such that, even in the absence of conclusive data (again, delays can be functional/intentional), activities and policy should carefully evaluate the potential for harm and swing conservatively towards mitigation rather than continued skepticism (imagine if we’d taken seriously the first warnings about climate change in the 70′s instead of waiting 30 years when the evidence is now iron-clad!).

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  2. 2. nuke roadie 6:21 pm 12/20/2011

    The author makes a comment about the work being sloppy but i have to disagree. The report in question is doing exactly as designed, how many people will take it at face value without digging for the final truth ? I have had the report posted on my facebook page as empirical proof that radiation kills babies instantly and any attempt to debunk it has been met with the same rhetoric (shill,government stooge,evil baby hating monster)every anti nuclear activist uses over and over. Once again the anti nukes have made the news using outright lies with impunity.

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  3. 3. guardia 12:17 am 12/21/2011

    I would simply like to point out that while Moyer says that ‘First, the authors assert: “In the United States, Fukushima fallout arrived just six days after the earthquake, tsunami, and meltdowns.” They provide no evidence for this assertion, no citation to back up their facts.’ while Mangano and Sherman clearly state where their data comes from:

    Maybe Moyer’s article should be peer reviewed as well before anyone takes it too seriously.

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  4. 4. circumspect 1:47 am 12/21/2011

    Hi, Counterpunch ran an article looking at Mangano and Sherman’s report and also found problems with it. However Counterpunch hired their own statistition to investigate. It turns out that while there were flaws in the way Mangano put things together, on analyzing the data properly, and pulling in data from other cities, there were clusters where large spikes in Infant death occurred. Counterpunch statistition Pierre Sprey found a cluster of cities with a 42% spike in infant mortality over the prior year which tailed off over a period of weeks that had 25% increased mortality. One would expect the plume not to affect all areas evenly, and areas with open dam water supply to be affected worse than those with wells. Rain outs as a plume passes overhead are another factor. Counterpunch does not have an axe to grind either way and made a very reasonable case.
    A good summary can be found here by a poster “Joviation”

    The original counterpunch independant professional analysis of Mangano’s work can be found here. Just search the page for “Post-Fukushima Infant Deaths in the Pacific Northwest” to find the story halfway down a page of other postings. Their analysis is much more in depth than Mangano’s or Moyer’s.

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  5. 5. Trubadidudei 7:41 am 12/21/2011

    Guardia, although I have not checked if your claim if the link you provided was cited as a source, the data there does indeed state that radioactive isotopes consistent with the fukushima disaster were detected around 6 days after the accident.
    I would just like to point out that it is also stated on the same page that the detected levels of radioactive isotopes from fukushima(which were only detected in hawai at the moment of the statement) would emit radiation a million times under the level of what is seen as a human a human health risk, and a hundred thousand times under the level of our daily exposure (the exposure due to rocks, concrete, bricks etc…).
    Although it is technically from fukushima, I would hardly call it “fallout”, as the original article does.

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  6. 6. Jerzy New 8:34 am 12/21/2011

    Very interesting piece, and I hope for more! No because Fukushima, but because it is a good general explanation how statistical studies should be performed and interpreted.

    Public is now bombarded with “reports” and “studies” and needs to understand how much sense they have.

    BTW, other problem is that “study” may not openly state untruth, but is worded in such a way that layman reader is guaranteed to jump into the wrong conclusions. I saw it even in Nature papers. Or a “report” cherry-picks scary bits of the study.

    BTW2, Scientific American itself is not immune to distorting truth. In my opinion, if something is genuinely of concern, it doesn’t need additionally spicing up.

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  7. 7. Jerzy New 8:50 am 12/21/2011

    BTW – after Chernobyl catastrophe, it was also originally alarmed that it caused lots of deaths. After the scare died down, it turned that very few deaths can be attributed to Chernobyl.

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  8. 8. iGoddard 6:00 pm 12/21/2011

    The study is at least right about the time of arrival. According to Leon, et al. Fukushima fallout “trajectories support the notion of transport of the radionuclides from the Japanese boundary layer to the U.S. boundary layer in only 5 to 6 days.” [1]

    And then presumably by some never-before observed mechanism the sporadic low levels that arrived started killing people in the U.S. immediately. Extraordinary! And the weight of the stated death toll is on non-infant deaths at 13,983 versus 822 infant deaths.

    However, is there any supporting evidence in the annals of radiobiology for rapid very-low-dose-induced death among non-infants other than leukemia? I’ve seen neither supporting epidemiological evidence nor explanatory causal mechanism for very-low-dose rapid death.

    We see what appears to be unbridled invention of radiation health effects to capture all and any increasing ailment in the population. One example is in the press release wherein the authors say: “the actual death count here may be as high as 18,000, with influenza and pneumonia.” But is there any reason to assume low-dose radiation causes pneumonia? I can’t find a single study supporting their assumption that radiation (high or low dose) causes influenza or pneumonia. [2]

    Now, it’s fine to propose that never-before-identified effects may exist, but it’s another to base an extraordinary conclusion on such random proposition. To make an extraordinary claim, one has to have extraordinarily solid empirical evidence and demonstrable causal mechanisms to support the claim, not assumptions from narrow 3.5 month data sets to newly invented health effects. It’s just a stack of empty hypotheses.

    [1] Free here:
    Peer-reviewed here:

    PubMed Search on: influenza radiation
    PubMed Search on: pneumonia radiation
    PubMed Search on: influenza pneumonia radiation

    Several studies come up, but not one that I found suggests that radiation (high or low dose) *causes* influenza or pneumonia and increases mortality. So how that becomes a radiation effect is beyond me. In case I missed something, there are the links so you can have at it.

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  9. 9. JimHopf 10:49 pm 12/21/2011

    It is also true that a candy store opened somewhere in San Francisco sometime in March of 2011. And, as the CDC data apparently shows, the death rate increased by 2.34%, immediately afterwards. There only one “rational” conclusion. That candy store clearly caused ~13,000 deaths across the US (even on the East Coast).

    All would agree that the reasoning above is absurd, but it’s actually not much different, or worse, than the reasoning applied in the so called study discussed in this article.

    The point is that correlation does not prove (or even persuasively show) causation. Not by itself. There has be an agent, i.e., an actual (plausible) mechanism. The reason that everyone agrees that a single candy store could not be the cause is that there is no plausible agent or mechanism by which it could be.

    Well, the exact same situation exists with respect to the Fukushima release. As #4 points out above, radiation levels seen in the US are millions of times lower than that required to have any measurable health effect. There is simply no agent, period. In fact, not only did (will) the accident have no health impact in the US, it is not projected to have any measurable health impact in Japan; not even in Fukushima provence.

    This isn’t an issue of “who you trust”, as #1 suggests (above), it is simply an insult to the intelligence. The notion of a conspiracy is absurd, given how easy it is (for anyone) to measure radiation levels. Nothing like that would even be attempted, since everyone knows they would have zero chance of getting away with it (especially given that nuclear power has always had a determined, organized opposition). That radiaton levels from Fukushima in the US were several orders of magnitude below natural background radiation levels was clear for everyone to see (measure).

    As for the observed increase in US deaths, there is a host of plausible reasons for it, none of which have anything to do with radiation. Their assertion, and the data they use to justify it, is particularly absurd given that the impact of low level radiation (when it occurs at all) is to slightly increase the risk of cancer, decades down the road. They’re trying to suggest that people died immediately, from tiny levels of radiation. Patently absurd.

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  10. 10. Jerzy New 5:11 am 12/22/2011

    Gosh! After Chernobyl, people went crazy shopping for Geiger counters. I could have opened an internet shop selling them after Fukushima.

    I missed a business of lifetime!

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  11. 11. AZgirl7 5:14 am 12/23/2011

    I live on the AZ/CA border. On the morning of Thursday March 17th, 2011 I woke up to white air and could not see any of the surrounding mountain ranges. I have lived here 32 years and have NEVER seen our air look like that. I thought right away it was the radiation but people argued with me saying you can’t ‘see’ radiation. Even the sunlight that tried to come through had an eerie strange cast to it. It lasted 4 days before the wind finally came up and blew some of it out. The weather service out of Vegas said it was dust from the wind because we had not had rain for quite awhile. BUT we had had no windy days for weeks previous to this. If we do get very strong winds, I’ve seen the air look brownish around areas with construction, but never anything like this. I had to drive to Kingman AZ that Thurs. and took some photos. I’d be happy to send pictures I’d taken before of trains in front of the mountains that are on Rt.40, and the same area with an after shot from that day. The difference is striking. I figure I got a good dose of Fukushima those 4 days as I was on the river along with many college aged kids who were here on spring break. The other wierd thing is spots in my photos that looked almost like mirrors reflecting back. I’ve taken thousands of pictures over the years and have never seen these odd spots, no matter where the sun was in relation to my camera. I did not see these bright spots until I put the photos on the computer and I have not had them show up in any photos since.

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  12. 12. guardia 8:30 am 12/23/2011

    Trubadidudei, JimHopf, how have you come to the conclusion that inhaling something like 100 times normal levels of radioactive iodine (among other things) is absolutely harmless? Of course we are bombarded with radiation everyday, but we do not /breath/ that much radiation everyday, and I cite “For example, iodine-131 in precipitation reached 242 and 390 picocuries per liter (pCi/L) in Boise, Idaho, on March 22, hundreds of times greater than the typical value of about 2.0 pCi/L.”

    Please provide proof, a citation or something, anything that shows that inhaling 100 more times radioactive iodine is perfectly harmless, even and especially to infants, thank you. Otherwise, you have no right to speak in the voice of science.

    And if you believe that a candy shop may be the cause of all those surplus deaths, then please, by all means, submit a new paper for review by your peers to rebut their findings. After all, this is what science is all about. We will all be very thankful.

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  13. 13. ksparth 7:55 pm 12/24/2011

    “Cherry picking” is an inseparable part of the “studies” of some writers who masquerade as scientists.Most of them write their conclusions first and try to massage the data to prove their premises.This crude attempts to get cheap publicity will disappear only if the media exercise some control.

    If the conclusions of such “scientists” were correct there would have been instant deaths among children who undergo computed tomographic (CT) scanning or nuclear medicine procedures.

    These “scientists” are cashing on the fear of the unknown.

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  14. 14. guardia 12:43 am 12/26/2011

    ksparth, how many times in your life have you ingested a CT scanner, rocks, bricks, or the sun, for that matter? Zero would be my guess. Please do not confuse radiation with radioactive contamination.

    FYI, here is another one of those articles with similar claims:
    Public health fallout from Japanese quake

    Is Scientific American going to go against all and every medical journal that come forth with such claims?

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  15. 15. iGoddard 4:35 pm 12/26/2011

    @guardia, there’s nothing I see in that CMAJ article about health effects of Fukufallout in North America, it’s all about Japan. Moyer states above: “Certainly radiation from Fukushima is dangerous, and could very well lead to negative health effects—even across the Pacific.”
    Observing that Mangano & Sherman is methodologically flawed does not entail a claim that radiation is harmless.

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  16. 16. Carlyle 11:31 pm 12/26/2011

    Sunlight is radiation from a nuclear reactor & causes millions of cancer deaths. Why don’t we ban it?
    Life on earth has been bathed in all kinds of radiatio since life began. We are adapted to deal with it. It is the degree of exposure that is important, not trying to avoid all exposure as alarmists would have it. You will need to lead a very sheltered life indeed if you wish to eliminate radiation from your environment. Mineralised beach sand, granite Air travel & many other factors will raise your exposure. Perhaps living in a lead capsule might help. The fear of radiation is out of all proportion to the actual risk.

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  17. 17. akoerblein 7:46 pm 12/31/2011

    The study is flawed.
    The data before and after Fukushima differ: After Fukushima, the authors included 119 cities in their evaluation, before Fukushima only 104 cities. The excess infant deaths come from the 15 additional cities.
    A trend analysis of weekly infant deaths with the official CDC data from week 50, 2009, to week 25, 2011, yields no upward shift, but a 1.3% decrease of infant deaths after Fukushima.

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  18. 18. Carlyle 3:36 pm 01/1/2012

    Yes. Dishonesty reigns in the anti nuclear movement.

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  19. 19. akoerblein 7:07 am 01/2/2012

    Don’t generalize, Carlyle. I am also anti-nuclear.
    The outcome of an epideniological study shouldn’t depend on one’s political beliefs.

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  20. 20. 123JM 2:55 am 03/2/2012

    Mr. Moyer’s assertions are at best misleading. EPA data are publically available and can be analyzed–contrary to Mr. Moyer’s assertions, these data very clearly show that a plume have reached the US mainland, with significant levels of Iodine, Cesium, and even gamma emitters having been detected. The plume has also been detected in Europe after it had first passed the USA. In France, pregnant women were even advised (by non-governmental organizations) to avoid consuming certain food (i.e., spinach, salat, etc.), and there the radiation levels were considerably smaller than in the US. Data on radition levels in the US, Canada, and Europe are available not only from EPA, but also from Canadian, German, French, and other European government offical radiation networks. The German and Canadian governments also published data from the international stations for detecting nuclear weapan radiation. Finally, data on the atmospheric conditions as well as corresponding simulations show how the plume spread over the Northern hemisphere, hitting the US prior to hitting Europe. These data have been published, for instance, by the Austrian government’s meteorologic agency, as well as by Norwegian researchers. A 10 minute search on the internet demostrates all this. It is a pitty that this comment has been published in this way.

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  21. 21. jctyler 11:27 am 08/14/2012

    If some of the early reports were flawed, does that make the problem go away? How about you publish the latest research results on butterflies from Fukushima? Why butterflies? Because typical and symptomatic and announcing the future consequences of Fukushima, which will by the private reactions of some scientists soon be felt, if not already, in the US. One of the benefits of your job is that you are close to good scientific connections so what keeps you from digging into the latest fauna news from the islands between the US and Japan?

    I wish your pro-nuke stand had one rational leg to stand on, but no, you’re typical of the new, modern SciAm, personal bias passing as objective reporting.

    (keywords: fukushima, butterflies, genetic mutation
    more keywords: fukushima, news, people, radiation, correction)

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  22. 22. KingofthePaupers 6:48 am 07/22/2013

    The authors appeared to start from a conclusion—babies are dying because of Fukushima radiation—and work backwards, torturing the data to fit their claims.
    Jct: Actually, I start from the fact baby deaths in B.C. tripled after Fukushima and don’t need any other data than that news to make my claim. Do you have any other cause of such tripling after April 2011? So that triple the babies died doesn’t need other data to fit to the claim.

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  23. 23. NewsView 10:13 pm 08/1/2013

    Well, I can’t speak for dying babies related to Fukushima radiation but living on the West Coast I can say within the first two weeks of the disaster I was sick with incapacitating fatigue, fever, nausea, lower abdominal pain, aches and headaches my doctor was unable to diagnose. It took a month to function again because the fatigue was so prolonged. And this from someone who usually doesn’t get sick.

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