What are officials hiding about Fukushima?
After the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, Soviet officials were vilified for hiding the impacts from the public.
But when Japan’s Fukushima nuclear accident took place last March, public officials in Japan and Canada alike jumped straight into Chernobyl-style damage-control mode, dismissing any worries about impacts.
Now evidence has emerged that the radiation in Canada was worse than Canadian officials ever let on.
A Health Canada monitoring station in Calgary detected radioactive material in rainwater that exceeded Canadian guidelines during the month of March, according to Health Canada data obtained by the Georgia Straight.
Canadian government officials didn’t disclose the high radiation readings to the public. Instead, they repeatedly insisted that fallout drifting to Canada was negligible and posed no health concerns.
In fact, the data shows rainwater in Calgary last March had an average of 8.18 becquerels per litre of radioactive iodine, easily exceeding the Canadian guideline of six becquerels per litre for drinking water.
“It’s above the recommended level [for drinking water],” Eric Pellerin, chief of Health Canada’s radiation-surveillance division, admitted in a phone interview from Ottawa. “At any time you sample it, it should not exceed the guideline.”
Radioactive-iodine levels also spiked in March in Vancouver (which saw an average of 0.69 becquerels per litre), Winnipeg (which saw 0.64 becquerels per litre) and Ottawa (which saw 1.67 becquerels per litre), the data shows.
These levels didn’t exceed the Canadian guidelines, but the level discovered in Ottawa did surpass the more stringent ceiling for drinking water used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is 54 times less than the six becquerels per litre of iodine-131 (a radioactive isotope) allowed in this country.
Health Canada provided the data only after repeated requests from the Straight. It isn’t posted on Health Canada’s web page devoted to the impacts of Fukushima.
Instead, Health Canada maintains on that page that the radioactive fallout from Fukushima was “smaller than the normal day to day fluctuations from background radiation” and “did not pose any health risk to Canadians”.
Pellerin said he doesn’t know why Health Canada didn’t make the data public. “I can’t answer that. The communication aspect could be improved,” he said.
In a statement emailed to the Straight along with the data, Health Canada played down the radiation in the Calgary rainwater: “Since rainwater is typically not a primary source of drinking water, and the concentration measured was very low (8 Bq/L), this measurement is not considered a health risk.”
Health Canada’s rainwater data reveals deficiencies in how Ottawa monitors radiation in terms of public safety. Even at the height of the Fukushima crisis, rainwater in Canada was tested for radiation only at the end of each month, after a network of monitoring stations sent samples to Ottawa.
As a result, the spikes in radiation last March were only discovered in early April, after rainwater samples were sent to Ottawa for testing.
It’s also impossible to know how high radiation got on specific days in March because each day’s rainwater was added to the previous samples for that month.
In contrast, the EPA tested rainwater for radiation every day and reported the data daily on its website.
Health Canada’s data on rainwater is also puzzling for another reason. It sharply contrasts with the data collected by SFU associate professor of chemistry Krzysztof Starosta. He found iodine-131 levels in rainwater in Burnaby spiked to 13 becquerels per litre in the days after Fukushima. That’s many times higher than the levels detected in Vancouver by Health Canada.