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.
The rainwater data is just one example of failings in how Canada monitored radiation from Fukushima. The accident has exposed a pattern of nonchalance and seeming willful ignorance on the part of Canadian health authorities when it comes to the dangers of nuclear power.
Drinking water is another example. In Vancouver, the city did its first test of the drinking-water supply on March 16, a few days after the Fukushima accident on March 11. No radiation was detected in that day’s sample. But this was to be expected because it took until March 18 and 19 for the radioactive plume from Fukushima to first hit the west coast of Canada.
Instead of continuing with frequent monitoring, the city didn’t do another radiation test until March 25—nine days after the first test. On March 25, testing detected alpha radiation at 0.11 becquerels per litre in the drinking water at the city’s Seymour-reservoir intake.
Alpha radiation comes from isotopes like plutonium-238 and is the most dangerous form of radiation when ingested or inhaled.
The level at the Seymour intake was lower than the current Canadian and World Health Organization guideline of 0.5 becquerels per litre in drinking water. On the other hand, the WHO guideline used to be 0.1 Bq per litre before it was adjusted higher in the mid-2000s.
That nine-day hole between March 16 and 25 is exactly when SFU prof Starosta found massive radiation spikes in rainwater in Burnaby.
Did the alpha radiation ever surpass the ceiling? We can’t say for sure. Because of the long gap between tests, it’s not clear how high radiation levels may have gotten and for how long. When the city tested its drinking water again on March 28, the alpha radiation was no longer detectable.
Food is another big question mark. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency briefly tested Japanese food imports from the area around Fukushima, but it dropped those measures in June. Canada now relies on Japanese authorities to screen contaminated food.
But Japan’s food inspections have proven to be highly controversial since Fukushima. The country has no centralized food-inspection system, and poor monitoring after Fukushima allowed food contaminated with radiation to be sold to Japanese consumers.
Meanwhile, it’s becoming clear that the radiation has spread much farther across Japan than government officials have acknowledged. Citizen monitoring groups have found 22 “hot spots” in Tokyo where radiation levels are higher than the level at which zones were considered contaminated near Chernobyl, the New York Times reported on October 14.
The CFIA also told the Straight it has no plans to monitor food products from the Pacific Ocean fishery. You’d think this would be a concern, because many fish caught in the Pacific still have large amounts of radiation months after the accident, according to data reported on the website of the Japanese government fisheries agency.
In September, 21 Japanese fish catches exceeded the Japanese radiation ceiling—the same number as in August. Two catches in September exceeded the ceiling for radioactive cesium by more than four times.
Even fish caught far from Japan are contaminated. One sample of skipjack tuna caught 440 kilometres from Japan in late September had a cesium reading of 13.9 becquerels per kilogram, according to the Japanese fishery data.
That’s below the Japanese ceiling of 500 Bq per kilogram, but it could still pose a health risk, especially when added to radioactive exposure from other fish or water.
This is because there’s no safe level of radiation. The scientific consensus is that even small amounts are unsafe. For example, the Canadian radiation ceiling is set at a level that causes about 500 lifetime cancers per million people over 70 years of exposure, according to Health Canada’s website. That’s 17,000 lifetime cancers spread over 33 million Canadians.
Months after Fukushima, radiation levels in the ocean waters off Japan have remained persistently high, despite government assurances that they’d dwindle, the New York Times reported on September 28.
Ken Buesseler, a scientist at Massachusetts’s Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, told the paper that Fukushima was by far the largest accidental release of radioactive material into ocean waters—exceeding, by a magnitude of 100, the Chernobyl contamination of the Black Sea.
Despite all this, the CFIA has already announced it has no plans to conduct radiation tests next year on salmon returning to B.C. waters that may have migrated near Japan.
Have there already been health impacts from Fukushima? It’s much too early to say. B.C. infant-mortality statistics don’t show any rise in deaths after Fukushima.
On the other hand, there is a statistically significant 33-percent correlation between infant deaths in Seattle so far this year and levels of iodine-131 detected in rainwater at the U.S. government monitoring station in nearby Olympia, Washington. (Radioactive iodine was detected over a period of five weeks in the rainwater in Olympia, so for calculation purposes, it was assumed that the level of iodine was zero the rest of the year.)
The correlation is only moderate and could still just be a coincidence. But it does suggest a need for more monitoring of health impacts. Unfortunately, the poor Canadian government data on radiation in rainwater here makes it impossible to see if such a correlation exists in Canada.
And with the lackadaisical attitude of public officials in Canada, we have to wonder if they will bother to study longer-term health impacts. Canada’s lack of monitoring isn’t all that surprising when you consider that it is a major exporter of nuclear technology and uranium. But it is reminiscent of Chernobyl.
Japan, Germany, and Switzerland have announced they’ll phase out nuclear power. Meanwhile, Canada is doing the opposite. In August, a federally appointed review panel cleared Ontario to build two new nuclear reactors, saying they pose no environmental risk.
And Canada still hopes to win contracts for its nuclear industry in countries such as China and Jordan, which have announced plans to build new nuclear reactors.