Three Ways Radiation Has Changed The Monkeys Of Fukushima
This year the evacuated residents of Japan’s Fukushima Prefecture began returning home, and as they resume their lives, the monkeys who have lived there all along have some cautions for them—in the form of medical records.
The Japanese macaques show effects associated with radiation exposure—especially youngsters born since the March 2011 meltdowns at the Fukushima-Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, according to a wildlife veterinarian who has studied the population since 2008.
Dr. Shin-ichi Hayama detailed his findings Saturday in Chicago as part of the University of Chicago’s commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the first man-made controlled nuclear reaction, which took place under the university’s football stadium in 1942 and birthed the technologies of nuclear power and nuclear weapons.
Hayama appeared alongside documentary filmmaker Masanori Iwasaki, who has featured Hayama’s work in a series of annual documentaries exploring the impact of fallout from the reactor meltdowns on wildlife. The fallout led the Japanese government to evacuate residents from a highly contaminated area surrounding the plant and extending to the northwest. The plume crossed the Pacific Ocean and left much diluted quantities of fallout across the United States, an event closely monitored on this page.
Since 2008, Hayama has studied the bodies of monkeys killed in Fukushima City’s effort to control the monkey population and protect agricultural crops (about 20,000 monkeys are “culled” annually in Japan). Because he was already studying the monkeys, he was ideally positioned to notice changes affected by radiation exposure.
“I’m not a radiation specialist,” Hayama said Saturday in Chicago, “but because I’ve been gathering data since 2008—remember, the disaster took place in 2011—it seems obvious to me that this is very important research. I’ve asked radiation specialists to take on this research, but they have never been willing to take this on because they say we don’t have any resources or time to spare because humans are much more important.
“So I had to conclude that there was no choice but for me to take this on, even though I’m not a specialist in radiation,” Hayama said, his remarks translated by University of Chicago Professor Norma Field. “If we don’t keep records, there will be no evidence and it will be as if nothing happened. That’s why I’m hoping to continue this research and create a record.”
Fukushima City is 50 miles northeast of the Fukushima-Daiichi Power Plant, so the radiation levels have been lower there than in the restricted areas, now reopening, that are closer to the plant. Hayama was unable to test monkeys in the most-contaminated areas, but even 50 miles from the plant, he has documented effects in monkeys that are associated with radiation. He compared his findings to monkeys in the same area before 2011 and to a control population of monkeys in Shimokita Peninsula, 500 miles to the north.
Hayama’s findings have been published in the peer-reviewed journal Scientific Reports, published by Nature. Among his findings:
Smaller Bodies — Japanese monkeys born in the path of fallout from the Fukushima meltdown weigh less for their height than monkeys born in the same area before the March, 2011 disaster, Hayama said.
“We can see that the monkeys born from mothers who were exposed are showing low body weight in relation to their height, so they are smaller,” he said.
Smaller Heads And Brains — The exposed monkeys have smaller bodies overall, and their heads and brains are smaller still.
“We know from the example of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that embryos and fetuses exposed in utero resulted in low birth weight and also in microcephaly, where the brain failed to develop adequately and head size was small, so we are trying to confirm whether this also is happening with the monkeys in Fukushima,” Hayama said.
And it appears that it is.
Anemia — The monkeys show a reduction in all blood components: red blood cells, white blood cells, hemoglobin, and the cells in bone marrow that produce blood components.
“There’s clearly a depression of blood components in the Fukushima monkeys,” said Hayama. “We can see that in these monkeys, that there is a correlation between white blood cell counts and the radio-cesium concentrations in their muscles. This actually is comparable to what’s been reported with children of Chernobyl.”
“We have taken these tests from 2012 through 2017, and the levels have not recovered. So we have to say this is not an acute phenomenon. It has become chronic, and we would have to consider radiation exposure as a possible cause,” Hayama said.
Hayama has appeared in several documentaries by Masanori Isawaki, who was 70 years old in 2011 and ready to retire from a thirty-year career making wildlife documentaries—he is best known for his portrait of “Mozu: The Snow Monkey”—when the Fukushima reactors melted down.
“Having turned 70 I thought, I’ve done enough, I can sit back. And then the nuclear disaster struck,” he said, his remarks also translated by Field. “I watched TV shows and read the newspaper for a year and kept asking myself, is there something left in me that I can do? A year later in 2012, with a cameraman and a sound engineer, the three of us just decided: In any case let’s just go to Fukushima, see what’s there.”
Since then he has made five films, one each year, documenting radiation impacts on wildlife, grouping them under the title “Fukushima: A Record of Living Things”. Two episodes were screened Saturday in Chicago, their first screenings in the United States.
At first Iwasaki documented white spots and deformed tails on the reduced number of barn swallows who survived after the disaster.
“It’s something we haven’t seen anywhere else but Chernobyl and Fukushima,” says the narrator of Iwasaki’s 2013 film, “so it’s clearly related to radiation. It probably doesn’t hurt the bird to have some white feathers, but it’s a marker of exposure to radiation.
“The barn swallows in Fukushima are responding in the same way as what we’ve seen in Chernobyl. The young birds are not surviving. They are not fledging very well.”
The white spots also turned up on black cows. Some types of marine snails vanished, then gradually returned. Fir trees stemmed differently, and the flower stalks of some dandelions grew thick and deformed. Dandelion stalks are a favorite food of Japanese monkeys, but the monkeys showed no obvious deformities, so Isawaki turned to Hayama to find out how radiation was affecting them.
Iwasaki’s 2017 film, just completed, is his first to investigate effects in the monkeys’ primate cousins, the humans: an unusually large number of children with thyroid cancer. ”