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Fear grips residents near nuclear plant

In Japan, many concerns about long-term health

Itsuo Inouye/Associated Press

Yoshiko Ota keeps windows shut and uses only bottled water in Fukushima after the tsunami hit the power plant nearby.

FUKUSHIMA, Japan - Yoshiko Ota keeps her windows shut. She never hangs her laundry outdoors. Fearful of birth defects, she warns her daughters: Never have children.

This is life with radiation, nearly a year after a tsunami-hit nuclear power plant began spewing it into Ota’s neighborhood, 40 miles away. She is so worried that she has broken out in hives.

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“The government spokesman keeps saying there are no immediate health effects,’’ the 48-year-old nursery school worker said. “He’s not talking about 10 years or 20 years later. He must think the people of Fukushima are fools.

“It’s not really OK to live here,’’ she said. “But we live here.’’

Ota takes metabolism-enhancing pills in hopes of flushing radiation from her body. To limit her exposure, she goes out of her way to buy vegetables that are not grown locally. She spends $125 a month on bottled water to avoid tap water. She even mail-ordered a special machine to dehusk her family’s rice.

Not everyone goes to such lengths, but a sense of unease pervades residents of Fukushima. Some have moved away. Everyone else knows they are living with an invisible enemy.

Radiation is still leaking from the now-closed Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, though at a slower pace than in the weeks after the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami. It is not immediately fatal but could show up as cancer or other illnesses years later.

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The uncertainty breeds fear. Some experts say the risks are low outside the 12-mile, no-go zone, and people can take steps to protect themselves, such as limiting intake of locally grown food, not lingering in radiation “hot spots’’ such as around gutters and foliage, and periodically living outside the area. But risks are much higher for children, and no one can say for sure what level of exposure is safe.

What is clear is Fukushima will be a test case that the world is watching for long-term exposure to low-dose radiation.

More than 280,000 people live in Fukushima city alone, though some have left, and many more live in surrounding towns, including many of the 100,000 who were evacuated from the no-go zone.

“People are scared to death,’’ said Wolfgang Weiss, chairman of the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, which is studying Fukushima. “They are thinking, ‘Tell me. Is it good or bad?’ We can’t tell them. . . . Life is risky.’’

It has not helped that the government has given only optimistic scenarios to avoid mass panic.

Public skepticism of government assurances grew when the man appointed as health adviser for Fukushima prefecture, Shunichi Yamashita, repeatedly said exposure to 100 millisieverts of radiation a year was safe.

Studies have found that cancer risks rise at an annual exposure of 100 millisieverts or above but are not statistically detectable at lower levels. Below 100, experts can not say for sure whether it is safe, just that a link to cancer can not be proved.

In Fukushima and outside the 20-kilometer evacuation zone, the annual exposure is 20 millisieverts in some areas and as high as 50 in others. Before the disaster, people in Japan were exposed to about 1 millisievert of natural background radiation a year; in the United States the average is about 3 millisieverts.

The debate earned Yamashita a nickname: “Mr. 100 Millisieverts.’’ Toshiso Kosako, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s graduate school, quit as government adviser last year in a tearful protest of Yamashita’s views.

Kouta Miyazaki is among those who have lost confidence in the government.

“Government officials should all come live in Fukushima for several years and bring their families. They’re all staying in places where it’s safe,’’ Miyazaki said. “We’re being told to get radiated and drop dead.’’

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