Did you know that taking a transatlantic flight exposes you to far more radiation than spending a day near the Fukushima plant would? No, neither did I. Just one fact that doesn’t seem to have come out of the media coverage of the problems at the plant following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
Luckily the web comic xkcd has produced a brilliant diagram illustrating why we shouldn’t get too hysterical about this. Clearly there are huge problems for people in Japan, but so far their exposure to radiation has been quite low and is unlikely to cause any illness.
As one article on the BBC website pointed out, many perfectly healthy people in America pay hundreds of dollars for a full-body CT scan as a check up. These scans can expose you to a radiation dose equivalent to being 1.5 miles from the centre of the explosion at Hiroshima. And in case that sounds a bit hysterical, the article goes on to say that “because more than 70 million CT scans are carried out each year, the US National Cancer Institute has estimated that 29,000 Americans will get cancer as a result of the CT scans they received in 2007 alone.”
What the hell is going on here? Clearly there is a massive misunderstanding of the actual doses of radiation you’re likely to receive in different situations, and the effect this might have on you. Having a CT scan to diagnose a potentially deadly disease like cancer makes sense. If you’ve got symptoms and might need urgent treatment, you’re balancing a small risk from the radiation with a huge potential risk from the cancer. And nearly everyone would make the same decision and have the scan.
But if you’re having one of these scans as a healthy person, just to check you don’t have cancer or any other major health problems, the whole situation becomes horrifically ironic. Thousands of people getting cancer because of a scan that might have been given just to check they didn’t have the disease? That really is a nuclear threat.
I’m glad the backlash against nuclear hysteria is being discussed, but overall this whole continuing saga is just another example of how we misunderstand risk. It makes me wonder what the reaction to the events at Fukushima would have been if the accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island had never happened.
A similar example is when you hear about a plane crash or terrorist attack on the news. It’s frightening and horrifying, but the risk of it happening to you is very low, and shouldn’t stop you taking the Tube or getting on a plane. Chernobyl was terrifying, but as the BBC article explains, the results weren’t as bad as expected. And an accident on this scale has only happened once.
Communicating risk is often really difficult, but you would hope a little bit of common sense would prevail. Judging by some of the comments I’ve read in the media, people in Japan are mostly far more worried about food and water shortages and the horrendous death toll than they are about Fukushima. And people in America and the UK should definitely be more worried about commercial companies offering CT scans than about a power plant on the other side of the world.