Two months after the devastating earthquake and subsequent tsunami hit the northeast coast of Japan, some B.C. residents are curious as to just how much radiation has been released from the damaged nuclear power plant and how much could be reaching the West Coast.
Nuclear regulatory officials in Japan raised the severity rating of the accident to seven last month, the highest possible on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES). And although reports show Fukishima has released only about 10 per cent of the total radiation released at the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown, the ranking puts it on the same level.
Radioactive material was released into the atmosphere over the last couple of months, while reports of highly-radioactive water is also said to have spilled into the ocean.
Rod Marining is not taking any chances. The co-founder of Greenpeace International and part-time Sunshine coast resident was trained in B.C. on radiation and its effects through Greenpeace. He is also a director and member of the committee, Better Radiation Testing in B.C.
“No radiation is safe,” he said. “Once you start dealing with radiation you’re going to see increases in cancer, birth defects … it will attack your immune system and start to wreak havoc.”
This is why Marining and his family are up in the Cariboo where they are supplied by well water. He said he remembers the water in Vancouver’s three watersheds being contaminated during the Chernobyl disaster. Although government claims to be doing some testing on water and other products like milk, it’s not enough, he said. Especially when a French research body, CRIIRAD, a non-governmental organization, recently advised pregnant women and infants against consuming fresh milk or vegetables with large leaves.
“We have been told on the West Coast we are experiencing 10 times the level they are experiencing in France,” he said, worried we should have had a similar warning.
“There seems to be a government cover up going on.”
Alice d’Anjou, senior media relations officer for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) said both water and milk testing is happening and the levels in Canada remain safe. Results of the testing on iodine 131 and cesium 134 and 137 can be found on their website. As with all radionuclides, exposure to both iodine 131 and cesium 134 and 137 is said to increase the risk of cancer.
However, all results of milk testing to date shown on the CFIA website is recorded only as MDC, defined as the minimum detectable concentration, typically around 2 Bq/Kg. The CODEX limits (established by the World Health Organization and the Food and Agricultural Organization) for radioactive particles is 1000 Bq/Kg, CFIA states.
There has been a value recorded slightly above the MDC for fish and seafood, but this is is still a minuscule amount, said Leslie Meerburg, media relations officer with Health Canada, and does not pose a health risk to Canadians.
Marining is also concerned that the results posted on government websites show only testing for iodine 131, cesium 134 and 137.
“They are saying we’re testing for background radiation and they don’t say anything about the other radiation emanating from this plant.”
Meerburg said testing for strontium, which causes bone cancer, requires a different more complex and lengthy analytical method. Since Health Canada knows the ratio of cesium to strontium in Japan, and the levels of cesium were very small, there was no requirement to test for strontium, she said. However the situation is different for milk, because strontium can be higher in milk than in food and therefore all milk samples were tested for strontium, she said.
Health Canada has not been testing food or milk specifically for americium or plutonium, she said, however if they were present they would have been detected.
Dale Dewar, executive director for the Physicians for Global Survival, and a family physician in rural Saskatchewan for 32 years, said her organization is calling for a moratorium on new nuclear power plants.
The amount of radiation humans are exposed to when flying in a plane or getting an X-ray is fleeting, she said, meaning we only get the radiation for the duration of the activity. The radiation from nuclear power plants is a different kind of radiation, she said, and accumulates.
“The radiation we are receiving from Fukushima or for that matter any nuclear power plant is largely stuff that stays and is what we call an internal emitter, rather than one that runs right through you.”
Iodine 131 is a major concern for children because it is easily picked up by their thyroid gland, she said.
Health Canada’s website states the radiation levels being detected are less than the fluctuations in radiation that occur naturally in the environment when it rains or snows.
Dewar said her main concern is not the current radiation in the air but the issue of long-term exposure or “radiation creep.”
She said governments can measure the amount of radiation in the air but not the internal level of radiation people are getting. Currently the way we know things are bad for us is by people getting cancer, she said.
“Do we have to wait until we have an epidemic of cancers in 30 years to say ‘Hey we really do have a problem’?”
Advice she gave for protecting ourselves from the effects of radiation is to have potassium iodine on hand for small children in the event that radioactivity increases. Antioxidants help the body deal with radioactivity, she said, like vitamin-loaded green and orange vegetables. As long as these foods haven’t been affected by fallout, she added.
Marining said he chose to stock up on dairy products that were packaged before the disaster, such as old cheese, as well as meat, and he bought powdered and canned milk.
Health Canada’s website states that given the space between Japan and Canada’s West coast, any radioactive material that might be pushed eastward via wind patterns is expected to be dispersed over the ocean long before it reaches Canada.
All air, water, milk, seaweed, seafood and agricultural products in Canada remain safe according to Health Canada.