Does Fukushima threaten our health through contaminated fish?
Read this April 27 story in TheTyee.ca weighing various concerns and reassurances around the impacts of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster on fish consumed in Canada.
Would you eat fish from Japan? Nearly two years after a devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan killed more than 15,000 people and damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, some people still believe dangerously contaminated fish could reach Canadians’ dinner tables.
The debate should be well over in the view of the person entrusted with overseeing public health in British Columbia: public health officer Dr. Perry Kendall. Time and again Kendall has tried to explain that there is, to quote the headline on one of his press releases, “Nothing to fear from radiation in B.C.”
Yet The Tyee has learned that Kendall became so concerned about calming the public fears that he considered unfounded that he urged the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to carry out a special round of testing as a “vital communications initiative.”
Last December, Kendall’s office said that such testing was no longer necessary because Ottawa had taken new safety measures. But then last month it appeared to reverse itself a second time, telling The Tyee that, due to “continuing misinformation on the internet,” it would ask Ottawa yet again to conduct new fish testing in 2013.
One widely read publication has repeatedly told a different story about risk and contamination of fish by Fukushima’s reactors. Vancouver weekly newspaper the Georgia Straight published several long feature stories on the radiation subject by award-winning journalist Alex Roslin, two with cover paintings of deformed three-eyed fish, with headlines such as “Japan’s Fukushima Catastrophe Brings Big Radiation Spikes to B.C.” and “What are Officials Hiding about Fukushima?”
Given what is at stake, this is no small difference of opinion. Is B.C.’s senior medical health officer wrong in assuring us that Fukushima radiation poses no risk for British Columbians? Or has the public been misled by reports that the threat is being ignored?
The March 11, 2011, earthquake that struck Japan caused a series of equipment failures, nuclear meltdowns, and releases of radioactive materials at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant. It was the largest nuclear accident since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 and only the second one (along with Chernobyl) to measure Level 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale.
The nightmarish disaster in Fukushima inevitably raised questions about possible impacts on British Columbia’s population, air, water, and fishing industry.
After the crisis, pharmacies and military surplus stores in B.C. said people scrambled to buy medication for radiation exposure and supplies like Geiger counters and gas masks, despite Kendall’s warnings that taking the medication (mainly potassium iodide) in the absence of high radioactivity can be harmful.
Such fears were bolstered by some of the media, Kendall told The Tyee. For example, he said key claims in the Georgia Straight stories were scientific “nonsense.”
Kendall’s deputy Dr. Eric Young said, “There is so much miscalculation and misunderstanding evident in the articles it is hard to know where to begin.”
The Georgia Straight has since retracted some of its reporting about radiation threats. At the top of its Aug. 3, 2011 story headlined “Japan’s Fukushima Catastrophe Brings Big Radiation Spikes to B.C.” is appended this note: “Editor: This story has rectified information on how levels of radioactive iodine-131 detected in the air in Canada after Fukushima compared with the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission’s ceiling for iodine-131. The original story mistakenly said that ceiling was exceeded. We regret the error.”
However Roslin, the author of the stories, defends the overall thrust of his pieces, providing The Tyee with lengthy rebuttals to critics, which are in this pdf. He writes that “any amount of radiation is unsafe and dangerous,” and, of Kendall’s agency, “I got the impression its overriding priority after Fukushima was to reassure the public — more than to monitor possible problems.”
Kendall decries ‘cherry picking data’
Expectant parents in Vancouver reading the Aug. 3, 2011 edition of the Straight could have been unsettled to learn “some impacts” from Fukushima “may have already occurred in North America” because infant mortality in eight cities in the U.S. Northwest jumped 35 per cent after the disaster, according to a website called Counterpunch which quoted data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
Kendall replied that: “This has clearly been demonstrated to be a case of cherry picking statistically expected variations from the norm, has no biologically plausible causal link, and does not reflect any link to measured radiation in the atmosphere…. This analysis had been widely debunked by multiple sources within days of its first appearance.”
When reporting on a test of Japanese fish catches last June, the Straight said: “All of these catches exceed Japan’s 100 Bq/kg ceiling for cesium in food, but none would have surpassed Canada’s much higher ceiling, which is 1,000 Bq/kg.
Kendall replied that: “The Japanese are now using an action level for radioactivity in food that is one tenth of the international, Codex Alimentarius level (100 vs 1000 Bq/Kg). They have done this to reassure consumers and customers of their diligence and their product safety. To turn this around and talk about the percentage of samples exceeding the Japanese action level, as being proof of dangerous levels, is disingenuous at best.”
Another story in the magazine said that, “Some migratory B.C. salmon stray into Japanese waters or could traverse a vast mass of radioactive water — now slowly making its way eastward across the Pacific — which is expected to reach the North American west coast by 2017.” Kendall replied that the notion of a mass of radioactivity crossing the Pacific and hitting the North American west coast at some point in the future is absurd, because radioactive isotopes would not hang together in a pool any more than a puddle of dye would.
Others doubt the likelihood of the last scenario too. “I’ve talked to lots of fishermen and the issue of radiation never came up,” said Maurice Cardinal, business development director of the B.C. Salmon Marketing Council. The salmon that B.C. fishermen do catch come down the coast from Russian by way of Alaska, he added. The longest salmon trip is roughly 8,000 kilometers total and “it would be a stretch to think they would ever go near Japan.”
Kendall’s plea to feds
Last June, in yet another attempt to allay public concerns, B.C.’s provincial health officer privately asked federal officials to test migrating salmon and tuna for possible radiation after the quake. But the federal government declined his request, calling it unnecessary because very little radiation had been found in fish reaching Canada to date and many other kinds of monitoring were ongoing.
In making his plea, Kendall wrote to Robin Brown at the federal fisheries department’s institute in Sidney, B.C., on June 4, 2012. (The letter was obtained by The Tyee through the freedom of information law.)
“We would not send same letter today,” deputy provincial health officer Eric Young told The Tyee last December. “We are happy with their response, and much more reassured then we were at that time.”
Among the many reasons, Young said at that time, is that Washington State monitors salmon (posting the results online) and all have been found safe so far, and his office is also part of a joint provincial-federal-American scientific fish-monitoring group that meets each month.
But last month, Young’s office appeared to reverse itself a second time, telling The Tyee that, due to “continuing misinformation on the internet,” it would yet again ask that new fish testing be done later in 2013. “The reason for that is the continuing misinformation about risk that one finds on the internet related to possible contamination,” he said.