(Editor: This story has rectified information on how levels of radioactive iodine-131 detected in the air in Canada after Fukushima compared with the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission’s ceiling for iodine-131. The original story mistakenly said that ceiling was exceeded. We regret the error.)
After Japan’s Fukushima catastrophe, Canadian government officials reassured jittery Canadians that the radioactive plume billowing from the destroyed nuclear reactors posed zero health risks in this country.
In fact, there was reason to worry. Health Canada detected large spikes in radioactive material from Fukushima in Canadian air in March and April at monitoring stations across the country.
On March 18, seven days after an earthquake and tsunami triggered eventual nuclear meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan, the first radioactive material wafted over the Victoria suburb of Sidney on Vancouver Island.
For 22 days, a Health Canada monitoring station in Sidney detected iodine-131 levels in the air that were up to 300 times above the normal background levels. Radioactive iodine levels shot up as high as nearly 1,000 times background levels in the air at Resolute Bay, Nunavut.
Meanwhile, government officials claimed there was nothing to worry about. “The quantities of radioactive materials reaching Canada as a result of the Japanese nuclear incident are very small and do not pose any health risk to Canadians,” Health Canada says on its website. “The very slight increases in radiation across the country have been smaller than the normal day-to-day fluctuations from background radiation.”
In fact, Health Canada’s own data shows this isn’t true. The iodine-131 level in the air in Sidney peaked at 3.6 millibecquerels per cubic metre on March 20. That’s more than 300 times higher than the background level, which is 0.01 or fewer millibecquerels per cubic metre.
“There have been massive radiation spikes in Canada because of Fukushima,” said Gordon Edwards, president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility.
“The authorities don’t want people to have an understanding of this. The government of Canada tends to pooh-pooh the dangers of nuclear power because it is a promoter of nuclear energy and uranium sales.”
Edwards has advised the federal auditor-general’s office and the Ontario government on nuclear-power issues and is a math professor at Montreal’s Vanier College.
In a phone interview from his Montreal home, he said radiation from Fukushima will lead to higher rates of cancer and other diseases among Canadians. But don’t panic. Edwards cautioned that the risk is very small for any particular individual.
“It’s not the risk to an individual that’s the problem but how much society is at risk. When you are exposing millions of people to an insult, even if the average dose is quite small, we are going to see fatal health effects,” he said.
Some impacts may have already occurred in North America. Infant mortality in eight cities in the U.S. Northwest jumped 35 percent after Fukushima, according to an article by internist and toxicologist Janette Sherman and epidemiologist Joseph Mangano on the Counterpunch website in June. The number of infant deaths rose from 9.25 per week in the four weeks prior to March 19 to 12.5 per week in the following 10 weeks, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control data.
“There has been a dismissiveness about the long-term hazards of nuclear power,” said Dr. Curren Warf, adolescent-medicine division head at B.C. Children’s Hospital.
Warf was on the board of the Nobel Peace Prize–winning U.S. antinuclear group Physicians for Social Responsibility before he moved to B.C. in 2009.
“These were some of the most advanced nuclear power plants in the world. But a natural earthquake and tsunami rendered their safety measures completely meaningless,” he said in a phone interview while on vacation in Tofino on Vancouver Island.
It’s not clear what health impacts British Columbians will face from the fallout from Fukushima, Warf said. But he added, “It should be a warning to Canada, the U.S., and the rest of the world about the vulnerability of nuclear power plants to natural catastrophes. These things have typically been dismissed in much of the planning.”
Dr. Erica Frank agrees. “The main concern I’ve had is we are not paying attention to Fukushima as a warning sign. Given the catastrophic long-term issues and what to do about nuclear waste, I had hoped it would be more of a wake-up [call] than it was,” said Frank, a professor of population and public health in UBC’s faculty of medicine and a past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility.
She called on Canada to follow Germany’s lead, which, in response to Fukushima, decided in May to phase out all of its nuclear power plants by 2022. “If Germany can do it, we can too,” she said in a phone interview from her Vancouver home.
With 450,000 people homeless, fallout across much of Japan, and a damages bill estimated at $300 billion, Fukushima is the “biggest industrial catastrophe in the history of mankind”, said U.S. nuclear-industry whistle blower Arnold Gundersen in a June 10 Al Jazeera story.
Even the Tokyo Electric Power Company, which owns the Fukushima plant, has acknowledged that the disaster may surpass the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe. “The radiation leak has not stopped completely, and our concern is that the amount of leakage could eventually reach that of Chernobyl or exceed it,” a TEPCO official said in an April media release.
In the case of Chernobyl, radiation caused 985,000 deaths worldwide—including almost 170,000 in North America—between 1986 and 2004, according to a Russian study published by the New York Academy of Sciences in 2009. Fallout contaminated about 100,000 square kilometres of land. And 25 years later, five to seven percent of government spending in Ukraine is still devoted to dealing with the disaster’s health, environmental, and other after-effects.
The impacts of Fukushima are still in the earliest stages of being determined, especially since the nuclear plant is still spewing huge amounts of radiation. On Monday, TEPCO reported detecting record-high radiation levels at the plant—double the previous record set in early June. The new level—at least 10 sieverts (10,000 millisieverts) per hour—could cause death or incapacitation within a few seconds’ exposure.
Japan’s prime minister, Naoto Kan, said in July that decommissioning the plant would take “several decades”.
Fallout has contaminated food and water across Japan. In July, officials reported that Japanese consumers had eaten meat contaminated with radioactive material. Cattle feed at one farm had levels of radioactive cesium 57 times higher than the government ceiling.
Japanese investigators later determined that almost 3,000 cattle had eaten radioactive feed before being shipped to market. Prices of Japanese beef collapsed after 23 out of 274 beef samples exceeded government radiation limits.
In Tokyo, radioactive iodine in tap water reached double the government ceiling in March. Meanwhile, TEPCO reported in April that a seawater sample near the Fukushima plant contained 7.5 million times what was described as the legal amount of iodine-131.
TEPCO released 11,500 tons of radioactive water from its storage tanks into the Pacific Ocean on April 4.
One aspect of the fallout and seawater contamination that remains unclear is how it might affect fish stocks, especially migratory species like salmon that could pass through poisoned areas of the ocean, eat irradiated prey, or have radioactive water dumped in their home ranges by Pacific currents.
Of the five species of Pacific salmon that are native to western North America, the sockeye is the most commercially prized. It also has the most wide-ranging migration route through the North Pacific, swimming for two to three years—as far as just northeast of the top of Japan—before coming back to its natal streams in Alaska, B.C., and the U.S. Northwest.
This year’s returning sockeye are just starting to be caught off Vancouver Island’s west coast. So far, there is no word as to whether or not these fish will be tested. According to an April 17 story in the Anchorage Daily News, U.S. federal officials have already stated that there is no need to even test Alaskan salmon.
Across the Pacific Ocean, it took only a few days after the disaster for radioactive fallout to start showing up in drinking water and milk across North America. Governments in both Canada and the U.S. monitored the radioactivity, but their data is reported in such a confusing and irregular way that it’s extremely difficult to determine if maximum contamination levels have been exceeded and how public health is being impacted.
“It’s very, very difficult to interpret radiation levels detected from Fukushima and translate them into standards. It’s a nightmare,” said Arjun Makhijani, an electrical and nuclear engineer and president of the Takoma Park, Maryland–based Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, in a phone interview.
And that’s not a coincidence, said Vanier College’s Gordon Edwards. “To me, it’s a way of obscuring the impacts. It’s a smoke screen.”
Dale Dewar agrees. “The government always downgrades the results. They want to soft-pedal the extent of the accident because it will threaten our own nuclear industry,” said Dewar, a family physician and the executive director of Canadian antinuclear group Physicians for Global Survival, in a phone interview from her home near Wynyard, Saskatchewan.
One of the highest post-Fukushima radiation readings in North America came on March 27 in rainwater in Boise, Idaho. It contained 14.4 becquerels of iodine-131 per litre—130 times the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum contamination level of 0.11 becquerels per litre.
EPA officials said in media reports that the high levels didn’t pose a health threat. For the agency to sound an alarm, it says, a person would have to exceed its maximum level for an entire year, drinking two litres of the contaminated water each day.
But nobody seemed to investigate how long the rainwater in Boise remained radioactive. Inexplicably, the EPA stopped monitoring Boise’s rainwater after the extremely high reading on March 27. The agency’s only other reading for the city was on March 22.
That day, the iodine-131 level hit nine becquerels per litre.
In fact, if the two readings are averaged out and stayed just as elevated over the entire six-day period from March 22 to 27, a person drinking the Boise rainwater during this time would have exceeded the EPA’s annual ceiling by 75 percent.
In B.C.’s Lower Mainland, iodine-131 in the rainwater hit almost the same level as in Boise. It also seems to have exceeded the EPA’s ceiling.
On March 19, the iodine-131 level in rainwater in Burnaby suddenly spiked from zero to nine becquerels per litre. The next day, it rose even further, to 13, according to data collected and released by Krzysztof Starosta, an associate professor of chemistry at SFU, and others.
The iodine-131 levels remained well above the background level (which is close to zero) for 12 days.
The average level of radioactive iodine was seven becquerels per litre over the 12 days. That means a person drinking two litres of the rainwater per day would have consumed 166 becquerels of iodine-131 during that period.
That’s more than double the maximum amount that the EPA says a person can drink in an entire year, which is 81 becquerels.
Starosta did not respond to phone and email messages seeking comment.
Starosta issued a statement on March 28 saying the levels were safe because they were lower than levels detected after the Chernobyl disaster.
“As of now, the levels we’re seeing are not harmful to humans. We’re basing this on Japanese studies following the Chernobyl incident in 1986 where levels of iodine-131 were four times higher than what we’ve detected in our rainwater so far,” the statement said.
The contaminated rainwater also didn’t spark concern from Canadian public-health officials. That’s in large part because Canadian standards are far more lenient on radioactive contamination than those of the EPA.
Canada allows six becquerels per litre of iodine-131 in drinking water—or 54 times more than the EPA. By the much higher Canadian ceiling, the rainwater in Burnaby was fine to drink.
At the B.C. Ministry of Health Services, spokeswoman Laura Neufeld referred questions about radiation monitoring to Health Canada. A Health Canada spokesperson, Stéphane Shank, didn’t return the Straight’s call. (Shank is the same Health Canada employee who did not return calls regarding a recent Straight story on nanoparticles.)
“It shows you these standards are not scientifically based,” Edwards said. “They’re arbitrary and really based on political considerations. We have a government strongly committed to the export of uranium and promotion of nuclear energy.”
And even if the radiation level in Burnaby didn’t hit the far higher Canadian ceiling, Edwards said, any amount of radiation can cause cancer and other illness. “To suggest that a certain level of radiation exposure is safe is untrue. It verges on misrepresentation. There is no evidence that there is any safe level of radiation exposure. It means you should operate as far below that level as you can,” he said.
Either way, without adequate monitoring, we may never know the impacts on Canadians.