Thursday, April 7, 2011

Contaminated corpses

The bodies of a great number of victims of Japan's March 11th earthquake and tsunami have not been recovered. That includes an estimated 1,000 that were not even searched for because they were within the 12-mile “exclusion zone” established around the damaged Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant. Radiation released into the air and ocean at the plant has contaminated everything in the area, including human remains. The bodies near the plant are potentially dangerous to handle or move, and now that nearly a month has passed since the disaster, decontaminating them is rapidly becoming impossible. The protocols for managing materials (including dead bodies) contaminated with radiation may preclude allowing the survivors to follow the Japanese custom of cremating the dead and placing their ashes with those of family members. Guidelines issued in the U.S. by the National Council on Radiation Safety and the Centers for Disease Control call for deep burial in a sealed container marked by radiation warning symbols. There is a way to make externally-contaminated bodies safe for cremation, but it is almost certain that the victims' remains would now no longer be intact enough to be washed or wiped off. Two workers who were killed at the nuclear power plant were washed, decontaminated, autopsied, and cremated, but it may be impossible even to identify the bodies of other victims. Their nails can be extracted for DNA testing, but these would also need to be decontaminated.

The international community, including the International Atomic Energy Agency, is awaiting a plan by the Japanese governmant's Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare to handle the situation. Kyoko Tokuno, senior lecturer of East Asian religions at University of Washington in Seattle, explains the gravity of the circumstances to the Japanese people: “They say the worst case is when you don’t have anything to bury or cremate, that’s why the surviving family members are desperate. What they want to do is bring back the remains, which presumes finding the bod[ies] and cremating them. One of the things that is important to people is that family members are buried together. To be scattered all over is not comforting. Being buried together … is very comforting. If the government and TEPCO do not pay attention and delay the proper treatment of people in terms of basic necessities — including how they treat the deceased in terms of tradition — there may be some serious consequences. I think there will be an outcry.”

Thanks, Sue!

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