GENEVA (Reuters) - People in the area worst affected by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident two years ago have a higher risk of developing certain cancers, the World Health Organization said on Thursday.
A magnitude 9 earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, killed nearly 19,000 people and devastated the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, triggering meltdowns, spewing radiation and forcing about 160,000 people to flee their homes.
It was the worst nuclear accident since a reactor exploded at the Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine in 1986.
"A breakdown of data, based on age, gender and proximity to the plant, does show a higher cancer risk for those located in the most contaminated parts," Dr. Maria Neira, WHO director for public health and environment, said in a statement.
In the most contaminated area, the WHO estimated that there was a 70 percent higher risk of females exposed as infants developing thyroid cancer over their lifetime. The thyroid is the most exposed organ as radioactive iodine concentrates there and children are deemed especially vulnerable.
The report estimated that in the most contaminated area there was a 7 percent higher risk of leukemia in males exposed as infants, and a 6 percent higher risk of breast cancer in females exposed as infants.
The report concluded that for the general population inside Japan, the predicted health risks were low, but that one-third of emergency workers were estimated to have increased risk.
But there was no discernible increase in health risks expected outside Japan, the WHO said in a 200-page report which was based on a comprehensive assessment by international experts.
Jim Smith, Professor of Environmental Science at the University of Portsmouth in England, said: "Apart from emergency workers, the most affected people were those who remained in some highly contaminated towns and villages to the northwest of the power station for up to four months before evacuation.
"The report found that these people received a lifetime radiation dose of up to 50 milli-Sieverts (MSV) and therefore have a significant, but relatively small, additional risk of contracting cancer in later life."
He said the average British person receives more than 150 MSV during their lifetime from background radiation.
He said the report did not yet give data on the numbers of people who received particular radiation doses, so it was not yet possible to estimate the overall health consequences.
Neira said: "The WHO report underlines the need for long-term health monitoring of those who are at high risk, along with the provision of necessary medical follow-up and support services."
Fukushima operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco) earlier this month received approval to tap the Japanese government for 697 billion yen ($7.5 billion) to compensate those harmed by the disaster, taking the total fund to 3.24 trillion yen.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Jon Boyle)