When I see the news reports from Japan, all I can think about is what cancers and other serious diseases are being imprinted on the genes of those vulnerable beings after exposure to the the contaminated air, water and soil.

A close friend and colleague once compared me to a ferret. What kind of friend does that, anyway? Well, a doctor friend. She said this because she noticed that I am very sleuth-like with medical diagnoses, always trying to unearth the causes of things. I like to prevent bad things from happening more than once, especially medical conditions.

My desire to understand the “why” was strongly influenced by reading Nancy Drew mysteries during my pre-teen years. Nancy made me want to become a forensic pathologist before CSI made that sexy. But I found that I couldn’t compartmentalize the tragedies that were an inevitable part of the work.

So I chose the seemingly happy and straightforward profession of delivering babies. But soon enough I found myself in sleuth mode.

It seemed like every year I saw more and more women coming in for their yearly “well-woman” exams with complicated gynecological issues that, at least in medical school, I had learned were the outliers rather than the norm. They had abnormal bleeding, painful breast cysts, pelvic growths, unexplained infertility.

My obstetrical cases proved just as complex. My patients had high blood pressure, diabetes, bleeding, pre-term birth and birth defects — complicating what should have been a natural and joy-filled experience.

There were a lot of them. My gut feeling was that something more than bad genes was contributing to the vast numbers of adverse gynecological and obstetrical cases I was seeing. The medical texts I read and conferences I attended didn’t seem to answer the fundamental question I had. Why so many? Why had our standard of what was normal shifted?

Then I was diagnosed with pre-menopausal breast cancer. I had no family history of the disease. But I also knew by now that genes weren’t everything. Exposures to environmental contaminants during childhood, and even before birth, are like secrets that eventually out themselves.

I already knew that as a child growing up in the ’50s in semi-rural California I had most likely come into contact with pesticides often. But imagine my shock in finding out that as an infant I, with many other San Fernando Valley residents, was exposed to a partial nuclear meltdown from a testing facility in the nearby Santa Susana hills.

The estimate is that this release, which happened in 1959, was 100 times greater than the release of radioactive iodine from Three Mile Island. At the time there was a cover-up, with the full story not revealed until the late 1980s.

Iodine is a critical component of thyroid hormone functioning. The thyroid, in turn, influences fetal brain formation and performance as well as heart health.

Both my mother and I were diagnosed with hypothyroidism. My brother died of a brain tumor at age 46.

The Santa Susana meltdown was the third-worst nuclear accident recorded. However, the rapidly unfolding tragedy in Japan may have already moved my glowing experience to number four.

With the current crisis in Japan, there seems to be an emphasis on high-level acute exposures and the belief that the dose makes the poison, a paradigm from Paracelsus, a 16th-century Swiss physician who is considered the father of toxicology.

Scientists now know that idea is only partially right. In a crisis like this, not everyone is affected equally. The timing of the exposure to radiation, even at minuscule doses, may be far more detrimental to the developing fetus and child. The full extent of the health crisis in Japan will take decades to be revealed.

I graduated from El Camino Real High School in 1976. With each face-to-face high school reunion or virtual Facebook reunion, I hear of cancer deaths and the multiple health problems that my former classmates are dealing with.

Were they all caused by the environment we were raised in? No. But still, the sleuth in me wonders, and worries. What will the kids from Fukushima High School be dealing with in 20 years time?

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Post Doctoral Fellow at UCSF Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment

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1 Comment

  1. thanks for this. we see smoke and think there is leakage. we don’t know about the leakage we don’t see. when they say they can make nukes “safe” they are lying, the probablility of accident may be low, but the consequences are high. i for one never knew about the santa suanna meltdown. cnn must have forgotten to mention it in their coverage. if we need nuclear power to fuel our ipads, lets get rid of the ipad and the rest of the crap.

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