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Cancerphobia and Radiophobia Are Harming the Children of Fukushima
Radiophobia had the Fukushima region by the throat, so it was decided that all 360,000 or so children and teens would be offered screening for thyroid irregularities.
The thyroid gland is a little butterfly shaped thing inside that soft spot in your throat just above your chest bone. Doctors can feel it just by rubbing, which is how initial exams for possible thyroid cancer are usually done, sort of like digital prostate exams or self breast exams: feel around for bumps, and go from there.
But like breasts and prostates, thyroids can have bumps that are just bumps, nothing more: not cancer, and nothing that will harm you or kill you. Experts say that if you autopsy anybody’s thyroid, you can find cysts or nodules, or even cancerous cells themselves, that would never have caused harm or death. You and I probably have some of those bumps or cells in our thyroids right now.
But while those cells or cysts might not hurt us, the fear of radiation and the fear of cancer certainly could, as an unfolding tragedy for children living around in the prefecture of Fukushima in Japan illustrates.
Following the nuclear accident there, fear of radiation was off the charts, even after it was well established that the levels of radiation released by the accident weren’t. In most areas those levels were low, well below the levels that the Life Span Study of atomic bomb survivors has taught us are worth serious concern.
Nonetheless, radiophobia had the Fukushima region by the throat, so it was decided that all 360,000 or so children and teens would be offered screening for thyroid irregularities, since high enough doses of radiation, particularly the isotope Iodine 131, can increase the risk of thyroid cancer (the thyroid sucks up iodine like a sponge), and iodine 131 was released by the nuclear accident. And to be extra careful, the decision was made to screen the kids with ultrasound, not those normal clinical ‘feel for the bumps’ exams.
Unsurprisingly, given the prevalence of suspicious cysts or nodules in everyone’s thyroids, the screening turned up thousands of abnormalities. And unsurprisingly, the first assumption was that these were cancers caused by radiation from Fukushima, a fear aggressively promoted by anti-nuclear activists. Only, that’s not what the evidence says:
+ Testing in non-exposed kids in Japan found the same rate of abnormalities, and so did the testing of south Korean kids 15 years ago when the health care system switched from physical exam to ultrasound. Radiation couldn't have cause those abnormalities.
+ The risk from the tiny dose of radiation received by most area residents was tiny.
+ Genetic tests of suspicious cells taken in biopsies from several thousand kids found that the genes matched the kind of thyroid abnormalities common in Japanes people as a whole, but did not match the abnormal thyroid cells taken from those exposed to radiation from Chernobyl.
“The evidence suggests that the great majority and perhaps all of the cases so far discovered are not due to radiation,” says Dillwyn Williams, a thyroid cancer specialist at University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.
Still, tens of thousands of Japanese kids had biopsies, medical exams that can lead to infection or other complications. One of the outcomes of biopsies for cancer can be really serious: removal of the entire thyroid if cancerous cells are found, even though such cells are common in many thyroids and are unlikely to ever cause harm or death. In the end, more than 100 Fukushima-area kids have had their thyroids removed, with significant health implications for the rest of their lives.
Is something causing an abnormal spike in thyroid cancers in all the kids in Japan? (Remember, ultrasound screening found elevated rates of abnormalities in non-exposed non-Fukushima kids.) Or is this a case of overdiagnosis and overtreatment of a disease that scares us into doing things that are not medically called for? That’s what experts are calling what happened to the Fukushima kids. As Dennis Normile reported recently in Science magazine
Even though the vast majority of thyroid abnormalities are safe to ignore, “finding small lesions causes patients anxiety,” says Seiji Yasumura, vice director of the Fukushima Prefecture Health Management Survey. Virtually all of those diagnosed with thyroid cancer have had the glands removed, even though accumulating evidence suggests in many cases it might have been better to wait, the University of Tokyo’s Shibuya adds. “Careful observation would be the best option.”
And if you need evidence that excess screening to increase early detection of a scary disease doesn’t necessarily lead to any health benefit, consider what happened in South Korea, according to the article in Science. When the government made ultrasound testing available,
[T]hyroid cancer diagnoses exploded. In 2011, the rate of thyroid cancer diagnosis was 15 times what it was in 1993, yet there was no change in thyroid cancer mortality (my emphasis).
There are good physical and emotional reasons to fear nuclear radiation. At high enough doses it can cause more than 20 different kids of cancer. Emotionally, human-made risks scare us more than natural ones (radiation from the sun doesn't scare us as much though it kills many more) and any risk we can’t detect with our senses leaves us feeling vulnerable and powerless and more afraid. There are certainly good physical and emotional reasons to fear cancer, a disease that often causes great suffering, and against which we feel have no control – many still think a cancer diagnosis is a death sentence – even though more and more forms of cancer are treatable, and even curable.
But when we let our emotions override an objective review of the evidence – which as this column notes we do all the time - it’s not radiation we should fear, or cancer. It’s our fears that we have to fear most. Those poor kids in Japan have offered us a profound lesson. We should listen.
(For a detailed summary of the thyroid issue around Fukushima, see this solid piece in The Hiroshima Syndrome, a blog that writes about the gap between the facts and our fears of nuclear radiation.)
image; GettyImages, Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert
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Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
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In a recent study, researchers examined how Christian nationalism is affecting the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- A new study used survey data to examine the interplay between Christian nationalism and incautious behaviors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The researchers defined Christian nationalism as "an ideology that idealizes and advocates a fusion of American civic life with a particular type of Christian identity and culture."
- The results showed that Christian nationalism was the leading predictor that Americans engaged in incautious behavior.
A pastor at the chapel of the St. Josef Hospital on April 1, 2020 in Bochum, German
Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images<p>Christian nationalists, in general, believe the U.S. and God's will are tied together, and they want the government to embody conservative Christian values and symbols. As such, they also believe the nation's fate depends on how closely it adheres to Christianity.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Unsurprisingly then, in the midst of the COVID‐19 pandemic, conservative pastors prophesied God's protection over the nation, citing America's righteous support for President Trump and the prolife agenda," the researchers write.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Correspondingly, the link between Christian nationalism and God's influence on how COVID‐19 impacts America can be seen in proclamations about God's divine judgment for its immorality―with the logic being that God is using the pandemic to draw wayward America <em>back </em>to himself, which assumes the two belong together."</p><p>The logical conclusion to this kind of thinking: America can save itself not through cautionary measures, like mask-wearing, but through devotion to God. What's more, it stands to reason that Christian nationalists are less likely to trust the media and scientists, given that these sources are generally not concerned with promoting a conservative, religious view of the world.</p><p>(The researchers note that they're unaware of any research directly linking Christian nationalism to distrust of media sources, but that they're almost certain the two are connected.)</p>
Predicted values of Americans' frequency of incautious behaviors during the COVID‐19 pandemic across values of Christian nationalism
Perry et al.<p>In the new study, the researchers examined three waves of results from the Public and Discourse Ethics Survey. One wave of the survey was issued in May, and it asked respondents to rate how often they engaged in both incautious and precautionary behaviors.</p><p>Incautious behaviors included things like "ate inside a restaurant" and "went shopping for nonessential items," while precautionary behaviors included "washed my hands more often than typical" and "wore a mask in public."</p><p>To measure Christian nationalism, the researchers asked respondents to rate how strongly they agree with statements like "the federal government should advocate Christian values" and "the success of the United States is part of God's plan."</p><p>The results suggest that, compared to other groups, Christian nationalists are far less likely to wear masks, socially distance and take other precautionary measures amid the COVID-19 pandemic.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Christian nationalism was the leading predictor that Americans engaged in incautious behavior during the pandemic, and the second leading predictor that Americans avoided taking precautionary measures."</p><p>But that's not to say that religious beliefs are causing Americans to reject mask-wearing or social distancing. In fact, when the study accounted for Christian nationalist beliefs, the results showed that Americans with high levels of religiosity were likely to take precautionary measures for COVID-19.</p>
Limitations<p>Still, the researchers note that they're theorizing about the connections between Christian nationalism and COVID-19 behaviors, not documenting them directly. What's more, they suggest that certain experiences — such as having a family member that contracts COVID-19 — might change a Christian nationalist's behaviors during the pandemic.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Limitations notwithstanding, the implications of this study are important for understanding Americans' curious inability to quickly implement informed and reasonable strategies to overcome the threat of COVID‐19, an inability that has likely cost thousands of lives," they write.</p>
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