“There will be cancers caused by the radiation that comes to this country from Japan,” University of North Carolina epidemiologist Steve Wing told Extra! in a May interview. Wing faulted news media for misinforming citizens about radiation risks: “What I’ve seen coming out for weeks were statements that there are no health concerns. That’s astonishingly irresponsible.”
Wing is known for coauthoring a study on the health effects of the Three Mile Island (TMI) accident. In 1997, he and his colleagues (Environmental Health Perspectives, 1/1/97) analyzed data from a 1990 Columbia University study (American Journal of Epidemiology, 2/28/90) that found increased cancers in populations near the accident, but stopped short of attributing those cancers to the radiation leaks from TMI. In the follow-up study, Wing and his colleagues criticized the earlier study for accepting dubious assumptions about the magnitude of radiation releases in the disaster, and concluded that those releases had contributed to the increase in cancers.
Wing gives credit to reporting on the Japan disaster that provided advice on what those living in the vicinity of a radiation leak can do to protect themselves—e.g., avoid fresh milk and other local foods, and steer clear of the most contaminated zones. But he says this kind of reporting runs the risk of personalizing health issues, as if they were decisions about “whether one would eat butter or margarine,” and instilling “the notion that it’s each of our responsibility about whether we get sick or not, based on our choices as consumers.”
Framing safety as a matter of personal responsibility can be dangerous, says Wing, because “once the radiation plumes get far from the source and widely distributed, it’s really difficult for people to make a big difference in their radiation dose by making changes in their behavior.”
Wing points to the gap between what’s reported in corporate media—that low levels of radiation are safe—and the views of professional science organizations including the National Academies of Science, who hold that radiation damage follows a no-threshold dose-response pattern, which means that risks of cancer and other genetic damage decrease with decreasing doses, but never go down to zero so long as radiation is present.
There’s a disconnect between at least what the National Academy has said, and anyone who’s stating in the press or quoting experts stating that there’s no health worries from Fukushima. And it’s not just the National Academy, but many other groups.
Promoting the myth that low-level radiation is harmless “doesn’t give us the information that would provide us with the basis for becoming involved in our society, in our civic lives and in helping to change energy policy.” Wing says that journalists need to explain that, just because radiation is spread out, “it doesn’t mean there’s no risk, it means that the risks are spread among so many people that the cancers that will occur from the exposure won’t be identifiable as related to radiation from Fukushima.”
Do corporate mediaharbor a nuclear industry bias? Wing told Extra! that “science is produced by people, and people have perspectives”:
What I fear happens sometimes in journalism is that the journalist feels that it is OK just to report what a professional association or a scientist says without any criticism at all, and if the scientist who has access to the public voice, meaning PR systems and press releases from governments or big corporations or wealthy industry associations, if they’re the ones who have access to the media, or the most access, then what will be reported is science with a particular point of view.
Another thing that happens is that journalists, if they do seek another point of view under the sort of mistaken idea that you always have to have both sides if there’s any disagreement, there’s a failure to reflect upon the conflicts of interest that are built into all human activities, and so some of the science that is being reported on is being produced by the very industries whose shares may fall in value if the science doesn’t look good for them.