YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Frustrated Navy families say they are being advised by military medical officials to send their young children out of Japan, but they aren’t getting the straight answers needed to gauge the risks to their children’s health after March 11's earthquake and tsunami.
U.S. Naval Hospital Yokosuka is calling parents of children age 5 and under and recommending that they send their children out of the country, several parents told Stars and Stripes. Other parents at Naval Air Facility Atsugi, which has a clinic operated by the hospital, said they were told that children age 2 and under should leave the country.
The hospital has not publicly announced any such recommendation, although a U.S. official with knowledge of the situation said that the calls were part of “medical counseling and education and not based on any changes.”
Hospital officials have declined comment since Wednesday, and on Friday referred all questions to Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii. Officials there spoke about children with special conditions, but did not have any information available on Yokosuka’s reported advisories that all young children leave.
“[Defense Department] personnel within specific locations who have been deemed by competent medical authority to have medical conditions that increase their vulnerability” can voluntarily depart Japan, said Pacific Command spokesman Maj. Matt Hasson.
The military announced March 17 that it would assist family members to leave voluntarily, but stopped short of declaring a mandatory evacuation.
Then, on March 22, Japanese officials found radioactive iodine in Tokyo tap water at levels deemed unsafe for infants. The military responded by passing out potassium iodide tablets to its personnel.
The tablets flood the thyroid with clean iodine, preventing the body from taking in the radioactive version. The military has warned its personnel not to take the pills unless directed.
That same day, Alex Breuer heard from a friend at Naval Air Facility Atsugi that children under 2 were being advised to leave.
Breuer called the medical clinic at Atsugi and was told by a Navy corpsman that it wasn’t true. But three days later, Breuer’s wife got a call from that same clinic, saying that children under 2 should leave.
On Monday, Breuer spoke over the phone with an officer who advised that their 1-year-old boy should leave Japan out of an “abundance of caution.”
When Breuer asked what had changed in the past two weeks to require that advice, the official, whose name Breuer could not recall, again repeated the “abundance of caution” phrase.
Breuer says his child has no special health concerns, and he hasn’t shown any indication that he would be allergic to iodine if it were ever needed.
“Why are they telling us to leave?” Breuer said to Stars and Stripes on Friday. “That question isn’t being answered with one sentence. Please give us an answer so we can make an informed, educated decision about what to do with our kids.”
Shannon Marchetti called U.S. Naval Hospital Yokosuka on March 23 after seeing a Facebook message that parents of young children should call them. She was told that they were advising that young children leave the area “because they don’t know what the long-term effects would be from radiation.”
After the caller asked if she understood, “they proceeded to tell me that my daughter’s medical file will be noted that we had spoken,” Marchetti said Friday.
Radiation levels in Yokosuka and the Tokyo area remain slightly above normal background levels, but officials say those levels pose no health threat. Nevertheless, residents remain concerned about the damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear reactors to the north, which continue to emanate radiation.
Barbara Yamaguchi said she received a call from the hospital Wednesday, advising that she send her 3-year-old boy away from the area.
The person she spoke with said it wasn’t mandatory, “just precautionary because of the radiation. He said it was because children are at a higher risk.”
“It really panicked some of the parents” who received similar calls, Yamaguchi said. “They were saying, ‘OK, you don’t have to tell me twice, I’m gone.”
Local residents have also reached out electronically to military officials looking for more answers than they’ve received from the hospital.
A post from La Familia Guevarasolorzano on the Commander Naval Forces Japan Facebook page said, “we got the same call from NH Yokosuka and for us is not a choice,” according to the post. “We are dual military and sending my kids away is not an option, they are already well traumatized with all of the events that have happened and if I send them away what kind of message am I sending...obviously to them it will be that they are not safe, and I have been lying all this time.”
A follow-up post from Commander Naval Forces Japan told the writer to call the hospital for more information.