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Getting Science Right: Hazards of Political Statistics

Getting Science Right: Hazards of Political Statistics

Knowing a disaster’s long-term effects too crucial for mere politics.

fukushima nuclear disasterThe Fukushima-Dai-ichi disaster of 2011 released a number of potentially dangerous radioactive isotopes, including iodine 131 (I-131) that was detected in precipitation falling on the western United States. Radioactive iodine is dangerous, and public health and academic researchers are now trying to determine what long-term damage can occur, where it can occur, and how long it will take to occur.

Where’s the politics in this?

The nuclear disaster in Japan (pictured) played rather well into the hands of anti-nuclear power activists, who have been warning for years that just this type of disaster can happen (in fact, much bigger disasters have happened, like Chernobyl in 1986). Two researchers, Joseph Mangano and Janette Sherman, with the Radiation and Public Health Project in New York, published a paper in the Open Journal of Pediatrics earlier this year, claiming higher rates of congenital thyroid damage along the United States west coast. The paper was hailed by anti-nuclear activists (and stories containing the data were circulating on various blogs and in publications since 2011—a suspicious sign right there).

So, what’s the problem?

Mangano and Sherman (who did not respond to requests for an interview) write that in five US states, congenital hypothyroidism cases rose 16% in March to December 2011, compared to the same period in 2010, while the rest of the country experienced a slight (3%) during the same period. While the authors admit that the “rise in congenital hypothyroidism (is) not well understood,” they also state that “environmental factors post one possible cause of these increases.” Factors like Fukushima.

The problem with this comes from how the authors were using their data—or even obtaining it. The researchers looked at eight western cities, but draw conclusions that the fallout from Fukushima traveled across the entire country. Well, which region was affected? The West Coast or the entire US?

The bigger problem is how the data was spread out. Mangano and Sherman’s report relies on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and they say the data show the significant increases from the weeks before the disaster. But Scientific American blogger Michael Moyer plotted the CDC data, and didn’t find a significant trend in infant deaths before and after; in fact, the data was all over the place.

So, did babies die from Fukushima or not?

Sadly, none of this—and none of the pro- or con- political fallout emanating from this paper—will shed much light. Some of the pro-nuke response includes the question of whether 16% is truly a significant change, and the authors admit that assigning blame is a complex problem. It is very difficult to establish the proper baselines from which to establish any kind of trend of long-term effects from a disaster—any disaster. That’s what scientists are working to do right now. Unfortunately for lobbyists, politicians and activists (on either side), that work is tedious, slow—and much more boring.

Source: Scientific American
Photo: Jun Teramoto / Flickr
Reference: J. Mangano, J. (2013). Elevated airborne beta levels in Pacific/West Coast US States and trends in hypothyroidism among newborns after the Fukushima nuclear meltdown Open Journal of Pediatrics, 03 (01), 1-9 DOI: 10.4236/ojped.2013.31001

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