I have to confess that when I first read this article from AP on the effects of the radiation released from Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant the first image that popped into my head was some horrific monsters from Japan’s Toho Studios. Toho, if you don’t know, is the studio responsible for the endless Godzilla series as well as a number of low budget monster movies, including Mothra, the giant butterfly.
But, of course, real life is never that cool and the mutations the article is talking about are quite a bit less dramatic, though perhaps still disturbing in terms of the public health of nearby residents of Fukushima.
Radiation that leaked from the Fukushima nuclear plant following last year’s tsunami caused mutations in some butterflies – including dented eyes and stunted wings – though humans seem relatively unaffected, researchers say.
The mutations are the first evidence that the radiation has caused genetic changes in living organisms. They are likely to add to concerns about potential health risks among humans though there is no evidence of it yet. Scientists say more study is needed to link human health with the Fukushima disaster.
The catastrophic meltdowns in three reactors of Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant after it was damaged by the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, prompted a public backlash against nuclear power, and forced the government to reassess resource-scarce Japan’s entire energy strategy.
But the most visible example of the radiation’s effect was claimed by a group of Japanese researchers who found radical physical changes in successive generations of a type of butterfly, which they said was caused by radiation exposure. They also said that the threat to humans – a much larger and longer-lived species – remains unclear.
“Our findings suggest that the contaminants are causing ecological damage. I do not know its implication to humans,” Joji Otaki of the University of the Ryukyus in Okinawa, a member of the research team, told The Associated Press in an email.
A separate study, released this week, found very low levels of radioactivity in people who were living near the Fukushima plant when it suffered the meltdowns.
The research on the butterflies was published in Scientific Reports, an open-access online journal by the Nature publication group, which provides faster publication and peer review by at least one scientist.
It says pale grass blue butterflies, a common species in Japan, collected from several areas near the Fukushima plant showed signs of genetic mutations, such as dented eyes, malformed legs and antennae, and stunted wings.
Other experts said they viewed the research as significant.
“Scientists have long known that radiation can be hazardous to human and animal health. Studies of this sort at Fukushima and Chernobyl provide invaluable information concerning just how hazardous radioactive contaminants could be for human populations living in these areas in the future,” Tim Mousseau of the University of South Carolina, told the AP by email.
“Butterflies as a group are important bio-indicators for the effects of environmental stressors like radioactive contaminants,” said Mousseau, who also is not part of the Japanese research.
The results show the butterflies were deteriorating both physically and genetically, with the share of those showing abnormalities increasing from 12 percent in the first generation to 18 percent in the second and 34 percent in the third.
To study the genetic changes, the scientists raised the new generations of the butterflies in Okinawa, which has not been affected by the radiation releases, mating each abnormal butterfly with one unaffected by such changes.
The researchers also demonstrated the effects of internal exposure to radiation by feeding leaves from plants from the area near the Fukushima nuclear plant to the butterfly larvae.
“The possible risk of internal exposure from ingestion should be investigated more accurately in the near future,” it said.
Humans are, obviously, longer lived than insects and there is much more time between generations so there might not be any noticeable increase in birth defects in humans for some time. I suppose it would depend on how much continuing exposure the people in the area have been getting. They will also have to monitor people for increase cancer rates, etc. I hope that the humans are not as badly affected as the butterflies.
- Fukushima radiation creates butterfly mutations (stuff.co.nz)
- Fukushima butterfly ‘abnormal’ (bbc.co.uk)
- Mutant butterflies sparked by Japan’s Fukushima disaster (newsday.com)
- Fukushima nuclear plant leak linked to mutations (standard.co.uk)
- Genetic mutations found in butterflies near Fukushima plant (newstalk.ie)
- 3 generations of Fukushima butterflies show genetic mutations (ctvnews.ca)