US and Japanese scientists are launching a new study into the long-term effects of radiation on the genes of children born to atom bomb survivors in Japan. The research will focus on diseases with a genetic component that do not usually show up until adulthood, such as diabetes and heart disease, reports last week's issue of Nature.
The research will be carried out by the Radiation Effects Research Foundation (RERF), a non-profit organisation jointly funded by the US and Japan. RERF found no long-term genetic effects in previous studies of around 80,000 children born to atom bomb survivors between 1946 and 1984. But research director Seymour Abrahamson says this result could be due to the limitations of the studies themselves, which were mainly based on observations of stillbirths and abnormalities in children under a year old. He believes that radiation effects could still show up as an increased incidence of late-onset genetic genetic disorders, which would not be apparent in childhood. 'We have to close the circle' he says.
Reactions to RERF's planned study have been mixed - some potential subjects feel that evidence of a long-term genetic effect could lead to discrimination. But others hope that a proven link between ill-health and radiation could result in compensation from the government. Abrahamson says the study will take between four to six years to complete.