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.