Shots - Health News
3:10 am
Mon March 11, 2013

Depression And Anxiety Could Be Fukushima's Lasting Legacy

Originally published on Mon March 11, 2013 5:23 am

Two years ago today, an earthquake and tsunami triggered a meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Japan. Hundreds of thousands of people living near the plant were forced to flee. The World Health Organization recently predicted a very small rise in cancer risk from radioactive material that was released. For the nuclear refugees, though, anxiety and depression could be the more persistent hazard. Correspondent Geoff Brumfiel traveled to Fukushima prefecture and met victims of the accident to see how they are coping. He sent Shots this report.

March 11, 2011, is a day that Kenichi Togawa will never forget. He was taking a break from his job at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant when the ground started to shake. "The earthquake was very big, and also very long," he says. It scattered desks like Lego bricks and brought down ceiling paneling.

After making sure co-workers were accounted for, Kenichi, like other nonessential workers at the plant, headed for home to check on his family. The Togawas lived in the seaside village of Namie, about six miles from the reactors. Kenichi left work by car, but he soon abandoned it. A tsunami sparked by the earthquake had wiped out roads near the coast, and those that remained were clogged with people hurrying home. He walked for miles, all the while unsure whether his wife and three children were OK.

He felt "a huge relief," he says, when he arrived home to find his family safe. But the Togawas' troubles were just beginning. After a fitful night, sleeping together in their living room, they were awakened in the early morning by a siren, warning them to evacuate. When Kenichi went out to recover his abandoned car, he was greeted by soldiers in gas masks. The family threw what they could into the car and fled.

Hours later, the Unit One reactor at the nuclear plant exploded, spreading radioactivity across Fukushima. The Togawas will likely never be able to live in their old home again.

At first they lived in a gymnasium in Kawamata town, about 30 miles away. For months, they slept in an open room with many other families and shared shower facilities and eating areas. People cut in line to get food, and others got angry when the kids played too loudly. "We were just like dogs and cats without chains," says Yuka, Kenichi's wife.

That was tough, but their current situation isn't much better. All five family members live in a tiny, temporary house that's roughly 300 square feet. Sixteen-year-old Rina says she often has arguments with her younger siblings, especially when they're settling down to sleep at night. "[The room's] just so small, we hit each other by mistake," she says.

Yuka is grateful to have a roof over her family's head, but she doesn't think of it as a home. "This is temporary," she says. "We leave our house in the morning and we come home and it's temporary. It's like floating in the air." She worries about her children. For now they are healthy, but she fears they may become sick from radiation exposure.

Kenichi is also having a tough time. He is more isolated now than he was before the accident. He spends hours each day playing video games. He has put on weight and drinks more than he used to. Other evacuees are doing worse. Many don't have jobs, and some have taken up drinking and gambling, according to Hiromi Yamamoto, an English teacher from Namie who fled to nearby Iwake City.

Public health officials believe that the stress and isolation the nuclear accident has caused may be more dangerous than the radiation itself. Big disasters are very difficult to recover from, says Ronald Kessler, a professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School who has studied the emotional fallout from Hurricane Katrina. Over the course of years, mental health problems can get worse and worse. "If it's something that goes on for a long, long time as Katrina did, that's where you get into trouble," he says. "The Japanese situation looks like it might be a similar sort of thing."

Fortunately, life seems to slowly be getting easier for the Togawas. Kenichi has a new job, and the kids like their school. Yuka is working part time as a nurse. But what comes next for the family is far from clear. "When I think about just today, I can stay happy," Kenichi says. "But when I think about the day after tomorrow and my future, I feel like I'm in a pitch-black box."

For more, read Fallout of Fear (Nature).

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It was two years ago today that an earthquake and tsunami sparked a meltdown at Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. Hundreds of thousands of people living around the plant were forced to flee the radioactivity. The World Health Organization recently predicted a very small rise in cancer risk for those who are nearest the plant. Some experts are talking about a different risk - predicting anxiety and depression among nuclear refugees could be more dangerous than the exposure to radiation. Reporter Geoff Brumfiel traveled to Fukushima to talk to people there about coping.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Kenichi Togawa was taking a smoke break from his job at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant when the ground started to shake.

KENICHI TOGAWA: (Through translator) We ran out of the smoking room. The inside of the building was heavily damaged. Desks and shelfs had fallen over. Papers were scattered everywhere. The ceiling had collapsed. We couldn't get out easily.

BRUMFIEL: After checking to see his co-workers were safe, he tried to get home to his family. But the traffic was too heavy.

KENICHI TOGAWA: (Through translator) My car was not moving at all so I gave up. I left it in the parking lot of the hospital about one mile from the power plant and I went on foot. I set my sights on home. As I went, the road had collapsed so I was climbing and jumping over things.

BRUMFIEL: When he finally got there, he found his wife and kids were safe.

KENICHI TOGAWA: (Through translator) I was really relieved. I wanted to get home quickly but I had been afraid of seeing the house. What if it was flattened or someone had died?

BRUMFIEL: But that was just the start of the Togawa's troubles. Early the next morning evacuation sirens blared across their seaside town. Kenichi went back, got his car, and the family fled. As they drove, he got a text from a colleague in Tokyo.

KENICHI TOGAWA: (Through translator) Traffic had stopped in front of the school and then I got a message that said the plant had exploded. I was surprised, but then I realized there was no choice. We had to keep going forward. We couldn't go back.

BRUMFIEL: Today the Togawa's live 30 miles away in one about half a dozen, slate-grey temporary buildings. They're lined up like boxcars. And they all look identical. Sorry, I didn't know which one you were in.

KENICHI TOGAWA: Welcome.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you. Inside one apartment lives Kenichi, his wife, and three children. The youngest daughter, Kei, gives me the grand tour.

KEI TOGAWA: (Speaking Japanese)

BRUMFIEL: It doesn't take long. Three rooms, totaling around 300 square feet in all. Kei, her brother and sister sleep together in one tiny room, while mom and dad sleep in the other. That leaves just one room for everything else, which is mainly video games.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME)

BRUMFIEL: But it's not the kids playing this fantasy game, it's their father, Kenichi. Before the accident, Kenichi was athletic. He rode his bike and practiced judo. But today things are different.

KENICHI TOGAWA: (Through translator) My environment has changed, my judo group is finished, my bike is back at my flat, my friends are all scattered around. So video games are something I can do at home without moving much. I used to spend more time with people. I was more active, but not any more.

BRUMFIEL: Kenichi is isolated in the evacuation housing. Every night while he plays his video game, he drinks four glasses of shochu, a strong Japanese liquor. And he's put on weight - almost twenty pounds since the family got here. Other evacuees are doing worse. Hiromi Yamamoto is an English teacher from the same town as the Togawas. After the accident she relocated to a city south of the nuclear plant. Hiromi says that many evacuees here are out of work.

HIROMI YAMAMOTO: They are nothing to do so they always, always go to Pachinko place, gambling and pay for a lot of moneys, and driving and sometimes drinking alcohol.

BRUMFIEL: One of her own friends has slipped deep into depression.

YAMAMOTO: Before big earthquake they lived in big house, big families, maybe grandmothers, maybe great-grandmothers, maybe friends around here. But now, she live just alone in the big city, nobody talk to her. I sometimes calls her, I said are you OK? Are you all right? She's sometimes crying. But I say, it's OK, it's OK. That's what I says.

BRUMFIEL: Yuriko Suzuki is with Japan's National Institute of Mental Health and has been working with Fukushima evacuees.

YURIKO SUZUKI: We have a lot of stories that people are distressed.

BRUMFIEL: Several months after the accident, she and her colleagues conducted a survey with some alarming results. One in five scored high on a PTSD checklist. That rate is the same as for workers at the sight of the 2001 World Trade Center attacks. Many of the nuclear evacuees are continuing to show signs of anxiety and depression.

SUZUKI: It's about uncertainty about their life, or if they can come back to home town, and also they cannot have plan how do they live their life in the future.

BRUMFIEL: And then there's the radiation. Kenichi Togawa's wife Yuka has learned a lot about radiation exposure in the last two years. Her kids are part of a government health survey. They wear radiation badges everywhere they go now, and they travel to Fukushima City every few months for blood tests and thyroid screenings.

YUKA TOGAWA: (Through translator) So far they're OK, but that maybe in a few years they might have some problems with their health. So it might be tomorrow, maybe it never happens, or maybe in a few years' time.

BRUMFIEL: Yuka is really worried about her kids' health. Experts are trying to reassure Fukushima evacuees and a recent report by the World Health Organization suggests only a small rise in cancer risk for those living nearest the plant. But the insidious thing about radiation is that it sews seeds of doubt in a parent's mind. That doubt can last for years.

Studies in mothers after Chernobyl found that psychological problems have lingered for nearly two decades. Gerry Thomas, a radiation health expert at Imperial College in London believes that anxiety, depression, and substance abuse may be Fukushima's greatest legacy.

GERRY THOMAS: I think the psychological health problems that will ensure from Fukushima will be far worse than any physical problems that have come from the direct interaction of tissues with radiation.

BRUMFIEL: Psychiatrists in Japan are aware of these problems and they want to help, but they're not sure how. They can't afford one-on-one therapy for all 210,000 people affected. Mental health expert Yuriko Suzuki says there's no proven therapy for victims of a disaster on this scale. But, she says, evidence from other disasters shows that overcoming social isolation is key.

SUZUKI: So I think some effort to try to get people together or have more sense that they are connected, I think that would be one way to intervene.

BRUMFIEL: Efforts are now under way to reach out to the worst affected evacuees by phone, and to set up mental health clinics throughout Fukushima. Life is also slowly getting better for the Togawas. Their kids like their new school; Kenichi has found a job with the local government, and Yuka is working part-time as a nurse. But Kenichi Togawa still doesn't like to talk about the accident or the future.

KENICHI TOGAWA: (Through translator) When I think about today I can stay happy but when I think about tomorrow, the future, I feel like I'm stuck in a pitch black box. So I try not to think about it, because it's too depressing to think about.

BRUMFIEL: And Kenichi is still sitting at home playing video games. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.