Fish data belie Japan's claims on Fukushima

Are fish from the Pacific Ocean safe to eat? It’s a question that’s back in the news after revelations of highly radioactive water leaking into the ocean from Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

“Let me assure you, the situation is under control,” Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe said during lobbying for the 2020 Olympics. “There are no health-related problems until now, nor will there be in the future.”

But the fish tell a different story about the impacts of the March 2011 tsunami that destroyed the Fukushima plant and caused massive amounts of radiation to end up in the Pacific.

About 800 people worldwide will get cancer from radiation due to Fukushima in fish eaten to date, according to Georgia Straight calculations. The Straight results relied on a widely used cancer-risk formula developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as well as radiation levels in 33,000 fish tested by the Japanese Fisheries Agency.

Half the cancers will be fatal. About 500 will be in Japan; 75 will be due to Japanese fish exports to other countries; and 225 will be from fishing in the Pacific by nations other than Japan.

And that’s likely only a small part of the actual long-term cancer impacts from eating the fish. Two nuclear experts who saw the Straight’s figures said the real cancer toll could be 100 times higher—or 80,000 cancers.

“The potential numbers could be two orders of magnitude [100 times] higher than your numbers,” Daniel Hirsch, a nuclear-policy lecturer at the University of California at Santa Cruz, said in a phone interview. “Hundreds of cancers are nothing to sneeze at, and it is a fraction of what I suspect the total will be.”

That could be the toll, Hirsch said, if all factors are taken into account, including: future fish consumption (the Straight’s number only includes fish eaten up to mid-July 2013); highly damaging isotopes that were released in the disaster but aren’t being monitored, such as strontium 90 and plutonium 239; consumption of contaminated fish caught in the entire Pacific (our number includes only fish caught in Japan and regions to the north and west of the archipelago, where the most radiation data exists, and doesn’t include any farmed fish); and research suggesting that radiation causes many more cancers than official formulas predict. (For more, see page 18.)

“Apologists say it’s a large ocean and dilution is the solution to pollution,” said Hirsch, who cochaired a California state appointed panel that oversaw a study of cancer among nuclear-power workers in the 1990s. “Dilution actually does nothing except expose a larger population.”

Because of the uncertainties involved with such calculations, it’s not clear how many cancers would occur in Canada or the U.S. The cancer numbers don’t include risk from fish catches in North American West Coast waters, where only a few sporadic radiation tōests have been done.

The cancer numbers also don’t include other possible health impacts from radiation in the fish, such as heart disease, stillbirths, and genetic damage to subsequent generations.

Those cases could actually outnumber the cancers, according to Sebastian Pflugbeil, a physicist in Germany who travelled to Japan to study Fukushima’s health impacts and who studied the impacts of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Pflugbeil checked the Straight’s calculations to make sure they were accurate, and he agreed with Hirsch that the final cancer toll could be 100 times higher. “Your calculation is nearly the lowest possible number of problems,” he said in a phone interview from Berlin.

The Straight also sent its cancer calculations to Eiichiro Ochiai, a retired chemistry professor in Vancouver who taught at UBC and the University of Tokyo and has written a book titled Hiroshima to Fukushima: Biohazards of Radiation (to be released on October 31).

In a phone interview, Ochiai agreed the calculations were done correctly and that the actual cancer toll will likely be higher. He said cancer-risk formulas used by governments underestimate the true cancer impact, especially those cases that arise from eating contaminated food.

“The official data is all denial,” Ochiai said. “The nuclear industry tries to suppress the truth.”

Erica Frank, a Vancouver MD, was taken aback when told the Straight’s results. “How can a person do anything but gasp?” she said in a phone interview. “That’s horrible. This is the beginning of a potential epidemic of radiation-related deaths from fish in the Pacific. It has vast implications for human health.”

Frank is a professor of population and public health in UBC’s faculty of medicine and a past president of the U.S. group Physicians for Social Responsibility, which shared in the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize. In June, Frank sponsored a motion, adopted by the American Medical Association, that called on the U.S. to continue to monitor radiation in ocean fish. She said that after Fukushima, she decided to stop eating fish from Asia. She is especially concerned about impacts on B.C. migratory salmon. “I eat so much salmon. I love salmon; I am vulnerable.”

Reactions to the Straight’s results varied. “I see no value in you publishing such information. It would only cause an unwarranted increase in angst,” said Thomas Hinton, a U.S.–based radiation ecologist at France’s Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety.

Hinton coauthored a study in the June Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that dismissed fears about eating fish contaminated by radiation from Fukushima, saying that radiation in tuna caught near California was “below levels that should cause concern”.

After the Straight sent him its cancer calculations, Hinton said in an email that the risk is still smaller than from natural sources such as cosmic rays, and that the average radiation level in the fish is below the Japanese government ceiling, which is 100 becquerels per kilo in food. Hinton didn’t respond to a phone-interview request.

In Berlin, Pflugbeil rejected Hinton’s argument, saying radiation from Fukushima can still cause cancers even if it is lower than natural radiation and government ceilings.

For example, 150,000 more people in Germany would die of cancer each year if all food had radiation at the European Union ceiling, according to a 2011 study Pflugbeil coauthored about Fukushima for Berlin-based Foodwatch.

“The allowed level of radiation in food is not the result of medical calculations but is a level which the atomic industry thinks it can accept. It’s very important to understand that the health of people plays almost no role in such calculations,” Pflugbeil told the Straight.

Arnold Gundersen, chief engineer at energy consulting firm Fairewinds Associates in Burlington, Vermont, also verified the Straight’s math.

Gundersen, who has a master’s degree in nuclear engineering, said by phone that the final number of cancer cases could be “over an order of magnitude higher” than the Straight figure. “Cancer rates are going up. It’s a useful fiction for the nuclear industry to say no one died.”

Edwin Lyman, a physicist specializing in nuclear issues and a senior scientist with the Washington, D.C.–based Union of Concerned Scientists, also checked the calculations. “There is a small risk for people who eat that fish,” he said in a phone interview. “If you ingest radioactive material, there is a cancer risk associated with that.”

And according to Cindy Folkers, a radiation and health specialist for the group Beyond Nuclear, in Takoma Park, Maryland, the presence of natural radiation doesn’t make it okay to add more carcinogens to the environment. “All this BS about natural radiation is used as an excuse to expose us to more radiation through their nuclear-industry processes,” Folkers said by phone.

In Ottawa, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency briefly tested food imports from Japan and required safety documentation on imports from the area around Fukushima. It dropped both those measures in June 2011, three months after the disaster.

The CFIA’s tests included about 50 fish and seafood products. But a CFIA product list supplied to the Straight included few of the fish species that have been found to have especially high levels of cesium, such as landlocked salmon, eel, carp, cod, and sea bass—all of which Japan has exported to Canada since the disaster. One sample of smoked bonito had 7.7 becquerels of cesium per kilo but it was allowed on the market, said CFIA spokesperson Elena Koutsavakis by phone.

“If it is below the Health Canada action level, we don’t see a reason for concern or a safety risk,” she said. Health Canada’s ceiling of 1,000 becquerels per kilo for cesium is 10 times that of Japan.

The CFIA did more radiation tests on Japanese food imports in the Vancouver region in September and October 2012; it still hasn’t released those results. Asked why the information has not been made public, Koutsavakis said that it is still being analyzed a year later: “It’s just a matter of doing the work based on the risk. That’s why it took longer.”

The Straight has filed a freedom-of-information request for the results.

Closer to home, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control long ago dismissed concerns about Fukushima’s impacts here. “There is no health risk from radiation from the nuclear-power plants in Japan to people in B.C.,” it said in a statement in March 2011.

“At Fukushima, [the reactor’s] design is great. No human error. Natural disaster,” said Abderrachid Zitouni, the BCCDC’s radiation specialist, explaining the disaster’s cause during a talk to B.C. medical professionals in April 2011. He delivered a PowerPoint presentation that said the accident had involved only a “minor release” of radiation with a “local impact only”.

(In fact, a Japanese parliamentary commission last year called Fukushima “a profoundly man-made disaster—that could and should have been foreseen and prevented”, blaming “a multitude of errors” and “ignorance and arrogance unforgivable for anyone or any organization that deals with nuclear power”.)

Zitouni didn’t return a phone message. Instead, BCCDC spokesperson Alex Dabrowski emailed the Straight to refer questions to the CFIA and the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Other countries are taking the risks more seriously. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and South Korea this month expanded restrictions on Japanese fish imports. South Korea also rejects other food from Japan if it has any cesium. In all, 42 countries and regions had restrictions on food imports from Japan due to Fukushima as of October 2012, according to an August Japan Times story.

Hirsch believes that restrictions and monitoring aren’t enough. “Even fish below limits pose a risk. The fundamental lesson is to try to stop from doing this again. Nuclear power might be safe, but only in the hands of another species.”

Ochiai agreed: “We should keep uranium safely in the ground.”

That lesson doesn’t seem to have sunk in. Since Fukushima, Canada has okayed uranium and nuclear-technology sales to the United Arab Emirates and India. And Japan has signed a deal to help build a new nuclear plant in quake-prone Turkey.

Comments (27) Add New Comment
Eric Doherty
Nasty stuff. And a great reason to move straight to renewable energy, including wind.

But the nuclear cancer threat should be compared to cancers caused by coal and fracking for 'natural' gas - both of which expose us to increased levels of radioactivity (plus lots of other cancer causing substances). Being exposed to increased radiation plus cooking our planet and turning our oceans to acid is not an improvement.
Rating: +45
steamed bacon
Not mentioned is that this Fuku nuke waste going into the pacific will go on for hundreds of years as far as todays tech. is concerned, and that's if we are lucky and spent fuel pool 4 does go up in smoke and radiation or explode and poison entire planet:
. yea. This article needs to blow up, talk about a cover up. CFIA won't release info for a year? Any nuclear garbage adds to health probs, so equating it with solar rad is ridiculous, it's an additive affect. Obama's (harpers too)biggest support came not just from wall street but nuke industry in illinois, Excel corp. we all live in a crappy japanese sci fi horror flick.
Rating: +40
Glow fish
Make the heads of the BCCD eat Fukishima fish three times a day and do a follow up in a few years. Next!
Rating: +40
how about exposing and calling Obama out on his dependence on
and facilitation of the nuclear industry? Apparently his scientific
expertise is zero, especially in the biological sphere, or he could not
in good conscience be suggesting that any kind of nukes are safe
Rating: +30
Thank you for this very well-written article.

And Thank you very much to the HEROES and humanitarians in this article who tell the truth about the dangers of nuclear radiation:

Hirsch, Pflugbeil, Ochiai, Lyman, Folkers, Frank and Gundersen

Rating: +38
Glow worm
I'm wondering why Canada decided to turn off our coastal radiological detectors too. Nice one Harper I'm glad your looking out for the people. Didn't tax dollars pay for all that?
Rating: +45
Boy Cott
Do you think the CFIA would get a bit more involved if we all boycotted all ocean caught (wild and farmed) BC fish?
I think Atlantic salmon just became my preferred fish.
Rating: +33
Kimberly Roberson
A Citizen Petition to lower current permissable levels of Cesium 134 and 137 in food, nutritional supplements and pharmaceuticals has been filed with the FDA by Fukushima Fallout Awareness Network member groups Beyond Nuclear, Citizens for Health, and Ecological Options Network. The AMA has called on the US gov to test seafood however as it is now those allowable levels are extremely high. To learn more go to or to comment directly go to!submitComment;D=FDA-2013-P-0291-0001
Rating: +43
@Eric Doherty, don't forget the cancer from the diesel exhaust from trucks and transit buses. Radioactivity from natural gas has me miffed, though.

It might but natural gas is fairly benign compared with diesel exhaust being pumped into your home from trucks and transit buses near your home. Could you clarify?
Rating: +15
Haven't we reached the point yet where EVERYONE should be alarmed at the way things are headed with many so-called scientists arguing that nuclear power is safe, coal and fracking for oil doesn't spew mercury or VOCs into the air and water, that climate change isn't associated with our release into the atmosphere of carbon that's been accumulating for millions of years, and we can't make enough power with renewables?
How bad does it have to get before we realize that we need first of all to conserve? Eg. Do we really need to drive to the grocery store every time we forget some food item? Or drive our children to school every day? And how many of us are even conscious that leaving lights on unnecessarily contributes to our societal energy over-consumption?
If we were really concerned about our collective future, we would be installing solar panels on every roof, and not complaining about the unsightliness of windmills in our neighbourhood; we would know that geothermal heating AND storage is practical for many large buildings as well as residences. (See Drake Landing Solar Community: Borehole Thermal Energy Storage: or We would seek quality rather than contribute to a disposable energy-wasteful economy, and we wouldn't insist on buying fruits and other foods from halfway around the world that is not only energy intensive, but discourages local production.
So long as this incessant drive for more nuclear plants, oil fields, coal beds and fracking for shale gas remains as lucrative as it is, fuelled by people's ignorance of how their own actions give impetus to these technologies rather than alternative energy sources, it will be an uphill battle to convince politicians to do the right thing. Although it will also take imagination and re-evaluation of the status quo.
Rating: +19
Dear Boy Cott, most 'Atlantic' salmon is farmed in BC!
Rating: +4
sir william the 4th
Rating: +5
There is a reason this is happening and it started with Nicola tesla. He was posed to set the world free with energy derived from our ionosphere. Big bank families knew they can control us with fossil fuels and ruined him. They stole his work and kept it for themselves, enslaving us under finance and endless debt.

The dark government who runs the us government instituted agenda 21 in the eighties and basically allowed corporations to run wild, destroy the earth and blamed us.

This is a planned geo catastrophe like the gulf fire and we will all lose our rights so they can seem like saviors when they force us into super cities when this part of the globe cannot sustain life.

Think about why ge electric built 4 nuclear plants at minus sea level on two fault lines and cannot help clean this up. ??

It's planned people , wake up.
Rating: +17
UrbanSurvivor too..but you think theres anything stopping people from labelling Pacific AS Atlantic?

The Japanese are notorious for this.
Rating: +14
Hi Alex,

Could you speak to someone who has technical training in this? I note that Daniel Hirsch has no technical background. Arnie Gunderson also has no background in health physics or public health (and makes himself the fool every time he discusses engineering (my backgound)). The same is true for every other "expert" you've listed.

It may be a useful exercise for you to list out each expert, their degrees, a sampling of their representative peer-reviewed publications, and why you think their expertise is applicable. Remember, just because someone has a physics degree does not make them a health physicist (and vice versa). There are an incredible number of cranks out there and you really need to be careful.

Rating: -15
Hi Saburo,

Thanks for your comment. I don't believe you need to be a health physicist to calculate cancer risks from radiation concentrations. The procedure is in the public domain and described in numerous documents.

That said, Dr. Erica Frank is certainly an expert in public health. She is Canada Research Chair in Preventive Medicine and Population Health at UBC.

You can find plenty of information about the professional background of Dr. Frank and the other experts in the story via Google. Most have been extensively quoted in other media.

Daniel Hirsch cochaired a California state-appointed scientific panel that studied cancer risks among nuclear power workers, so I believe he is qualified to speak about this topic.

Sebastian Pflugbeil and Edwin Lyman are both physicists specializing in nuclear issues. Arnold Gundersen (not "Gunderson") was senior vice president of nuclear energy services at Penn Central Corporation and has been a court expert witness on nuclear issues for over 20 years.

Eiichiro Ochiai was a chemistry professor in five countries and has authored several books on chemistry as well as a book specifically on health impacts from radiation due to Fukushima.

Rating: +19
This article doing something that is expressly rejected by leading radiological protection bodies: using the LNT model to predict fatalities from mild increases in radiation over absolutely massive populations. So when one of the Daniel Hirsch says “Dilution actually does nothing except expose a larger population,” he’s clearly out of his depth.

Now, let’s look at the people cited, starting with Mr. Hirsch, who is, surprise, surprise, not a medical scientist or a radiation specialist. He’s a politics lecturer who is also a long-term anti-nuclear campaigner, having founded a group of his own. He’s the mirror image of a TEPCO executive. I cannot find any citations on google scholar that connect him to work on radiation and health. Actually, I can’t find much published by him on nuclear power at all in the scholarly literature, apart from fears about nuclear reactors in space and attacks on the NRC. He doesn’t appear to have any scientific education. So, not the best person to ask about radiation and health as he is apparently neither qualified nor published on the topic, and personally (and financially, I gather from reports of California debates in the 1990s) invested in the news from Fukushima being bad.

Sebastian Pflugbeil is a particularly interesting source. I plugged his name into google scholar and got this first up:
Busby, C., Lengfelder, E., Pflugbeil, S., & Schmitz-Feuerhake, I. (2009). The evidence of radiation effects in embryos and fetuses exposed to Chernobyl fallout and the question of dose response. Medicine Conflict and Survival, 25(1), 20-40.

So, someone who works with the arch data-scrambler and snake-oil salesman “Professor” Chris Busby, and who publishes in the in-house magazine of the international version of Queen fruitbat Helen Caldicott’s Physicians for Social Responsibility. It turns out that Pflugbeil is President of a small anti-nuclear organisation (The German Society for Radiological Protection) whose senior staff have links to Busby’s grandly titled European Committee for Radiation Research.

Rating: -16

The abstract of that Pflugbeil paper is just teensy a bit dodgy:

"Current legal frameworks for radiation exposure limits are based on the risk models of the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP). In Publication 90 (2003), ICRP presents a safe (threshold) dose range of up to 100 mSv for radiogenic effects resulting from in utero exposure and bases this conclusion on the findings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However, a variety of observations of congenital malformations, fetal loss, stillbirths and infant deaths, as well as of Down’s syndrome and other health defects in children after the Chernobyl accident exposures suggest that the A-bomb survivor data are incomplete."

In other words “our findings are inconsistent with other data, so the other data must be wrong and therefore can be ignored”. They offer no reason in the text why the A-bomb data would have the bias they claim. No matter that their findings are inconsistent with the vast majority of published scientists.

Erica Frank is former President of International Queen fruitbat Helen Caldicott’s Physicians for Social Responsibility. She’s an MD. She’s not a published expert on radiation and health.

Arnie Gundersen earns his money (when he’s not a high school teacher) by being anti-nuclear (getting paid to be an “expert witness” for anti-nuclear groups), and whose credentials are rather murky. One reason we know he’s a bit weird because pretty much every confirmable prediction he’s made so far (the releases will be many times worse than Chernobyl; the fuel pools have already exploded) has been wrong.

Edwin Lyman is a member of anti-nuclear group the Union of Concerned Scientists. I’ve had a look for his publications on radiation and health, and I can’t find much that isn’t simply published by anti-nuclear groups, and it’s about proliferation, not cancers. I note that he publishes with Jan Beyea, who, like Gundersen is a professional anti-nuclear consultant.

Cindy Folkers is from another anti-nuclear group called Beyond Nuclear, whose doubtless innumerable qualifications and publications in her specialist area of radiation and health appear to be beyond the reach of google.

Rating: -6

So those are the people the article relies on – not actually specialists in the area, but people who are personally and often financially invested in being anti-nuclear rather than expert per se. The funny thing is, the article also cite someone called Thomas Hinton, who says:

“I see no value in you publishing such information. It would only cause an unwarranted increase in angst”

and that radiation in tuna caught near California was

“below levels that should cause concern”

and that even having looked at the silly maths sent to him by the newspaper his opinion was that

"the risk is still smaller than from natural sources such as cosmic rays, and that the average radiation level in the fish is below the Japanese government ceiling, which is 100 becquerels per kilo in food."

Unlike all these other people, I plug his name into google scholar and I get a couple of dozen articles by him on radiation. He even has a proper scientist’s job at a proper scientific research institute specialising in radiation.

Notice how the input of only established expert consulted is treated with contempt.

Instead we get:

"About 800 people worldwide will get cancer from radiation due to Fukushima in fish eaten to date, according to Georgia Straight calculations. [...] Half the cancers will be fatal. About 500 will be in Japan"

Now, 500 cancers with 250 fatalities from two and a half years fish-eating for the population of Japan would work out as about 1 death in 1.2 million per year or 0.083 cases per 100,000 population, the usual way these figures are quoted. Looking at a random article from a Google search on booze, 20,000 Americans per year keel over from cancer caused by alcohol, and 35% of them are drinking 1.5 standard measures (around about a pint of beer, for instance) or less. Taking 200 million as the adult population of the USA, we get a risk of about 1 in 28,600, or 3.5 cases per 100,000, or 42 times more deadly for even just the moderate drinkers.

You want a health risk from Fukushima? How about what was the biggest killer after Chernobyl? Radiation? Nope. Stress, and how people tried to cope with that stress (such as by drinking heavily). Stress caused by people such as wrote this article, or comment above, who have the science spectacularly wrong, and in the cases of the contributors deliberately so, so that they can line their pockets. SHAME!
Rating: -14
Alex Roslin
Thanks you for your comment. Unfortunately, it contains a number of factual errors.

Edwin Lyman’s group, the Union of Concerned Scientists, isn’t an anti-nuclear group. Its website says: “Is UCS pro- or anti-nuclear power? The answer is ‘neither.’”

You also claim Lyman hasn’t published anything about radiation and health. In fact, he coauthored a paper in the journal Energy & Environmental Science specifically on the cancer impacts from Fukushima.

You also say radiological protection authorities advise against calculating cancer risks from low levels of radiation. But that is exactly the purpose of the EPA’s cancer risk formula and other such government models used worldwide – to figure out cancer risks to the public from low doses of radiation.

Thomas Hinton, the radiation ecologist whose views you praise, did exactly this kind of calculation himself in his paper. He works for a radiological protection body. The World Health Organization also did a study on Fukushima that estimated specific cancer impacts.

Your claims that the science in the story is “spectacularly wrong” (without citing any actual mistake), the name-calling and baseless attacks on people’s motives – all while hiding your identity – don’t help your credibility.

As for people in the story who have anti-nuclear views, your argument seems to be that their views prevent them from being able to calculate cancer risks or comment on them. That’s like saying someone who opposes smoking or drunk driving can’t determine risks from smoking or driving drunk, or comment on them.

You dispute physicist Sebastian Pflugbeil’s paper, saying it’s “dodgy” because it suggested that a cancer risk model based on Japan’s atomic bomb survivors may be incomplete.

In fact, other studies raise the same problem. The issue is that the healthiest people had the highest chance of surviving the initial bomb blasts. They would thus be less likely than to develop cancer later on than the average person exposed to the same radiation.

It’s called the “healthy survivor effect.” It could be why some studies have found up to 10 times higher cancer rates among nuclear power workers than official risk formulas.

Finally, you say 800 cancers aren't very much. The point is officials claim there is zero health risk from Fukushima. And as the article says, the actual long-term impacts could be much higher.
Rating: +18


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