Kunihiko Iida wants the world to know that the atomic bombs the United States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki 75 years ago next month are still claiming lives and causing suffering.
Iida was 3 years old in August 1945. His father had died in battle; he was living with his mother and her parents in a house 900 meters from Hiroshima’s hypocenter, the spot right beneath the detonation. The blast crumpled the house. The family fled the city, but Iida’s mother and older sister soon died from their injuries, a fact the little boy didn’t grasp. “Until I entered elementary school, I thought they were living and that we would meet someday,” he says.
His injuries left him bedridden for years, and he has suffered debilitating illnesses ever since. Childhood anemia caused him to collapse at school. He’s had ulcers and asthma, underwent two surgeries to remove brain tumors, and now has thyroid growths. “There has never been a break in these illnesses,” he says.
Yet Iida has survived. Thousands of others died prematurely over the years because of radiation-induced cancer, a tally that is still growing. Collectively, they have left an important legacy. Most of what is known today about the long-term health effects of radiation has come out of research with those survivors. The work, now run by the Radiation Effects Research Foundation (RERF), is making “major contributions to our understanding of radiation effects,” even today, says Richard Wakeford, a radiation epidemiologist at the University of Manchester. RERF studies also underpin the limits that countries have set for occupational and medical exposure to radiation.
Iida has participated in the studies since the late 1950s, because, he says, “They are trying to accurately grasp the misery of the atomic bomb,” something he hopes will promote peace. People don’t understand the unique impacts of nuclear weapons, Iida says. He and other participants “have helped the entire world,” says Ohtsura Niwa, chairman of RERF.
The survivors’ ranks are now rapidly thinning. About 70% of the original 120,000 participants enrolled in RERF’s Life Span Study (LSS) have died; most of those remaining are in their 80s and 90s. “We have an ethical obligation” to follow the cohort through the last surviving member,