A Vancouver woman wants Canadian governments held more accountable for protecting public health in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear crisis. In an August 8 interview at the Georgia Straight office, Isabel Budke pointed out that citizens and nongovernmental organizations can exert a great deal more pressure on Health Canada and other regulators to improve monitoring, measuring, and reporting on radiation levels in water, soil, and food.
“I really think we need to have localized and regional testing because, from what I understand, the plumes that have drifted over the Pacific Ocean with this radiation are touching down on different areas in different ways, depending on where the jet stream is going and what weather conditions are,” Budke said. “We can’t rely on testing results from the United States or testing that has been done somewhere else in the country. I think we need to have our own testing in B.C.”
Budke, who has an SFU master’s degree in environmental and resource management, said that if governments won’t do this work, she wants the public to work collaboratively to have food, soil, and water tested. Her group has created a “Canadian Network for Radiation Awareness & Monitoring” website, which will post results from citizen-initiated laboratory tests.
Last week, the Straight reported that on March 20, a Health Canada monitoring station in Sidney, B.C., detected iodine-131 at more than 300 times the background level. Despite this, Health Canada spokesperson Stéphane Shank told the Straight on August 9 from Ottawa that air-monitoring stations have shown that radiation levels are “minute” and pose “no risk” to Canadians.
“Levels that are being detected are within the natural background radiation fluctuations that we would see on a normal, average day,” he claimed.
Budke remains unconvinced. She lived in Germany after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear-reactor meltdown, which spewed radiation across Europe. At that time, she recalled milk being thrown out “by the tonne” because it was so contaminated. She added that to this day, meat from wild boars in Germany is sometimes discarded because these animals eat mushrooms, in which radioactive cesium bioaccumulates.
“From the very first news about this Fukushima accident, I’ve been incredibly concerned about the Japanese people and what this means to them,” Budke said.
On May 19, a group of Japanese scientists and engineers declared that three nuclear reactors had melted down at Fukushima. Budke expressed alarm about spent-fuel pools containing thousands of fuel rods, which were stored on top of the reactors’ buildings. They contained a mixture of uranium and plutonium. She said that the latter substance is so toxic that inhaling a particle smaller than a speck of dust creates a high risk of lung cancer.
“We don’t know what the concentrations are because no one is measuring plutonium either in our food or in our water or in our soil or in our air,” Budke insisted. “And other really dangerous substances are strontium and uranium.”
She also pointed out that Greenpeace has detected “incredibly high levels of radiation” in the waters off Japan. In addition, she said she’s particularly concerned about radionuclides—otherwise known as radioactive isotopes—which are atoms with an unstable nucleus that emit gamma rays. “I’ve been wondering as I was walking in the rain in April and in May: how radioactive is our rain in Vancouver?” she continued. “And there is just no information. And I’ve been wondering: is this accumulating in our soil, and is the radioactivity being taken up by plants that we grow on our soil and that animals are eating, such as cows?”¦And I’ve been wondering about other things, such as fruits and vegetables and mushrooms. And I’ve been wondering about seafood that swims around in the Pacific Ocean.”
Shank said that people shouldn’t be concerned about rain. “Essentially, if we’re talking in the context of the events that unfolded in Japan earlier this year, we can appreciate that the radioactivity that may make its way here in Canada would be in the air,” Shank said. “It would be the initial source and the primary source of detection, as well—and again, understanding that rain falls from the skies, which is where air would also travel, which is why the monitoring stations focus on air testing.”
Budke emphasized that the effects of exposure to low-level radiation accumulate in the body over time, leading to serious health problems. According to her, it’s not possible to test for small amounts of radiation with Geiger counters because they’re not precise enough. “It requires really highly sophisticated instrumentation to do what’s called alpha and beta and gamma spectroscopy,” she stated. “I’ve come to the conclusion that this has to be done by an authorized agency. There are actually two laboratories in Canada that are certified to test for radionuclides, and so we would be using one or both of those.”
She hopes citizens and nongovernmental organizations will collect and send one or more samples of soil, water, and food to these labs. Budke said testing costs approximately $200 per sample, not including shipping, and there will have to be guidelines regarding how this material would be packaged and prepared.
At first, she hopes people will pay the cost. She hopes that later, fundraising can help defray expenses. “I would really like to find out that we have scraped by this global disaster without severe health effects,” Budke said. “But right now, we don’t know that. I would like to see that confirmed.”