As horrific as their immediate impact was, the two atomic bombs detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki were especially devastating because the damage they unleashed was played out over many years. For the first time in history, the world was made to witness the terrifyingly protracted effects of an atomic attack.
The eviscerating blasts tore through the two Japanese cities on 6 and 9 August 1945, respectively, ripping up buildings and instantly cremating everything and everyone within a few hundred metres of ground zero.
It is estimated that the level of destruction inflicted on Hiroshima by the “Little Boy” atomic bomb could be matched by 2,100 tons of conventional bombs. But what cannot be matched by conventional bombs are the corrosive effects of radiation poisoning. This is the uniquely destructive legacy of nuclear warfare.
Within 20 to 30 days of Little Boy hitting Hiroshima, radiation exposure is thought to have caused the deaths of 6,000 people who survived the blast. The long-term health effects of radiation exposure still aren’t fully understood but the long-term suffering it can cause is well-documented.
Both cities saw an increase in the number of leukaemia cases after the bombings. This was the earliest delayed reaction to radiation exposure among survivors, first appearing two years after the attacks and peaking six to eight years after exposure. It has been noted that the incidence of leukaemia was higher among those who were closer to the hypocentre.
Other forms of cancer, including thyroid, lung and breast cancer, also saw an increase – albeit less marked. So did anaemia, a blood disorder that prevents the creation of enough red blood cells. More common health effects among survivors included cataract, which often formed years after the attacks, and keloids, abnormally protruding scar tissue that forms as burned skin heals. Typically, keloids became most prominent six to 14 months after exposure.
In the years following the attacks, the survivors became known as the hibakusha – “the explosion-affected people” – and were subjected to widespread discrimination.
The terrifying mystery of radiation exposure led to survivors being regarded with suspicion, as though they were the carriers of a terrible contagion. It became common to regard them as unsuitable partners for marriage and many struggled to find employment. Sterilisation programmes were also discussed.
As if it wasn’t enough that victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings had been subjected to unimaginable trauma, had their lives torn apart and, in most cases, suffered horrible injuries, they were now being treated like lepers and ushered to the margins of society.
Thankfully, however, although the lives of the hibakusha have often been blighted by illness, the lingering physical effects of the atomic attacks have not been hereditary; there is no evidence to support the notion that children conceived by survivors of the attacks were any more likely to suffer birth defects or congenital malformations.