After Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster, John Disney couldn’t help but worry. He was acting band manager of the Old Massett Village Council on the north tip of Graham Island in Haida Gwaii.
Canadian health officials were saying the radioactive fallout posed no health risk to Canadians. But Disney wasn’t convinced.
He sent samples of water, goat’s milk, and seaweed to a lab in Saskatoon for tests. The lab found 1.1 becquerels per litre of radioactive iodine in rainwater collected on March 28.
The lab told him the Canadian ceiling for iodine-131 in drinking water is six becquerels per litre. The rainwater wasn’t at the limit yet, but the sudden rise—over previously undetectable levels—worried Disney. He put out an alert to his community of 700, giving the numbers and advising residents to avoid drinking rainwater.
“It [the iodine level] was coming up fast, and I didn’t know where it was going,” he said by cellphone from Old Massett (also known as Haida Village). “Quite a lot of people around here are on rainwater [drinking] systems.”
The responses from Health Canada and Environment Canada were scathing. “They said I didn’t know what I was doing and that there was nothing to worry about. I’ve got half the world telling me I’m an idiot,” Disney said.
Health Canada gave the Georgia Straight the same kind of assurance. “Canadians are safe,” spokesman Stéphane Shank said in a phone interview. Radiation detected in Canada was “within the natural background fluctuations”.
In fact, the iodine-131 levels at Old Massett tested above background until early May. Background for iodine-131 is around zero because it doesn’t occur naturally.
And even though the level never exceeded the Canadian ceiling, that didn’t necessarily mean it was safe. In fact, Japan’s five-month-old nuclear crisis has focused attention on a dirty secret of the nuclear industry: its version of “safe” isn’t necessarily the public’s.
The Canadian ceiling for radiation is set at a level that causes 7.3 cancers per million people each year, according to Health Canada’s website—or 511 lifetime cancers over 70 years of exposure per million people. Spread over 33 million Canadians, that’s 17,000 lifetime cancers. (About half are fatal.)
“If it’s causing cancer, it’s not safe,” said Gordon Edwards, president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, in a phone interview from Montreal.
What’s more, Canada’s radiation ceiling is 50 to 500 times more permissive than Health Canada guidelines for carcinogenic chemicals. Those generally are restricted to a level that causes a maximum of one to 10 lifetime cancers per million people.
“The nuclear industry has taken upon itself the ability to set its own standards independent of how we get them for other carcinogens,” Edwards said.
In April, the Japanese government raised its maximum limit for children from one to 20 millisieverts per year, a level that leads to 2,270 cancers annually per million people (or 160,000 lifetime cancers per million), according to data in a landmark 2006 U.S. National Academy of Sciences report on radiation cancer risk. A massive outcry later forced the government to reverse the move.
About a fifth of the 1,600 schools in Fukushima prefecture were exposed to at least 20 milliseiverts of radiation this year, according to a Bloomberg story in July.
Back in Old Massett, Disney also worries about the salmon. He was a commercial salmon fisherman for 30 years and is now trying to get funding to do radiation tests on sockeye, which he says often migrate into Japanese waters.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency is now doing radiation tests on salmon caught in B.C. coastal waters, which will end in September. But Disney says it’s also important to test sockeye that return in 2012 and 2013, which are at higher risk of having travelled near Japan.
The CFIA stopped testing Japanese food imports in July. It requires only that importers bringing in food from the Fukushima area document its “safety”. The agency has no plans to test imported Pacific seafood or seafood caught near Japan by Canadian companies.
Fish and crustaceans caught in the vicinity of Fukushima in late March had 10,000 times the “safe” level of radiation, according to a May study in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. Macroalgae had 19,000 times the safe level.
Those levels were measured before the Japanese utility that runs the crippled nuclear plant dumped 11,000 tonnes of radioactive water into the Pacific in April and additional leaks released several hundred tonnes more.
And it turns out Disney was right to be cautious about his rainwater. Some of the highest iodine-131 levels in North America after Fukushima were detected in rainwater in Burnaby—6.9 becquerels per litre on average over 12 days in late March (again, well above background levels).
It was less than the Canadian ceiling for drinking water (which is six becquerels per litre consumed at a rate of two litres daily for 365 days). But it doubled the more stringent ceiling of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
In Virginia, state officials issued a don’t-drink-rainwater advisory in late March after iodine-131 levels in rain in nearby states reached about a third of the level seen in Burnaby. Yet, B.C. health officials insist the Burnaby rainwater was safe. “The dose would have been too small to have any biologically measurable impact—even if people drink rainwater, which they don’t,” said B.C. provincial health officer Perry Kendall in an email exchange with the Straight.
That might come as a surprise to B.C.’s growing rainwater-harvesting community. Edwards is incredulous: “That’s the kind of statement you could expect from a nuclear promoter, not a public-health agency. The responsible attitude is to say there’s no reason to panic, but that no amount of radiation is safe.”