(NaturalNews) Wild monkeys living near Fukushima, Japan, have detectable levels of radioactive cesium in their bodies, along with lowered blood cell counts that may indicate a hampered immune system, according to a study conducted by researchers from the Nippon Veterinary and Life Science University in Tokyo and published in the journal Scientific Reports on July 24.
In March 2011, a massive earthquake and tsunami caused multiple meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, leading to the release of radioactive elements including cesium into the surrounding environment.
"The findings are consistent with what our group had found with red blood cells and hemoglobin content for children living around Chernobyl," biologist Tim Mousseau of the University of South Carolina, who was not involved in the study, said to Live Science.
In 1986, a nuclear meltdown and explosion occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. In the ensuing years, much research has been done on the effects of the radiation released on humans, animals and other life in the region. Although comparable research at Fukushima has only just begun, scientists have already observed increased abnormalities in butterflies and negative effects on bird populations in the regions near the crippled Japanese plant.
Immune systems hampered?
In the new study, researchers compared 61 wild Japanese macaques (Macaca fuscata) living 43 miles from the Fukushima plant to 31 wild animals of the same species living on the Shimokita Peninsula in northern Japan. The animals were studied about one year after the nuclear disaster.
Monkeys living near Fukushima had significantly lower counts of numerous blood components, including red and white blood cells, compared to the monkeys living farther away. While the Shimokita monkeys showed no detectable levels of cesium, the Fukushima monkeys carried levels of radioactive cesium between 78 to 1,778 becquerels per kilogram.
Among juvenile monkeys, higher concentrations of radioactive cesium were correlated with lower white blood cell counts, suggesting that the radioactivity may be hampering the monkey's immune systems. It also suggests that younger animals may be more susceptible to the effects of radiation.
The study found that neither infectious disease nor malnutrition could explain the changes in the blood of the Fukushima monkeys.
"This first data from non-human primates -- the closest taxonomic relatives of humans -- should make a notable contribution to future research on the health effects of radiation exposure in humans," researcher Shin-ichi Hayama said to The Guardian. "Abnormalities such as a decreased blood cell count in people living in contaminated areas have been reported from Chernobyl as a long-term effect of low-dose radiation exposure."
"The fact that they are seeing a signal in monkeys living in Fukushima city means that there's some potential direct relevance to the human population," Mousseau said. "These monkeys are living at levels of contamination that are very similar to what many of the people are also living in."
Health effects still largely unknown
Geraldine Thomas of Imperial College London expressed skepticism about the findings, claiming that they were not scientifically robust -- but her comments suggest a more political than scientific motive.
"We know that one of the most damaging health effects comes from fear of radiation, not radiation itself," she said.
Thomas said that, unlike monkeys, humans can simply avoid food contaminated with radioactive cesium.
According to Mousseau, few studies have actually been conducted on the effects of radioactive cesium exposure.
"It's really surprising how little research is being supported," he said, "given the important questions that can be answered by this research, the implications for human populations in the area, as well as the potential utility of such research for any future nuclear accident that might occur."