"Safe" radiation levels after Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster challenged by citizens

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      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.”




      Aug 25, 2011 at 5:49am

      Thank you, AR and GS, for another better-late-than-never article, telling us things that our fearless leaders don't bother with. I have a strange feeling there's a bit more to this story. Keep it up.

      Agusta Westland

      Aug 25, 2011 at 1:40pm

      So all this is useless and false.

      1. http://radiationnetwork.com/

      2. http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/hc-ps/ed-ud/respond/nuclea/data-donnees-eng.php

      And finally,

      Somebody from Tokyo:

      Posted August 20,11


      Posted June 7,11


      Someone living in the Lower Mainland:



      All these points, suggest that it's "safe" living in Vancouver. However, I worried about the food and water we are getting. They are not being tested and it has already been 5 months. After reading this article, its obvious “safe” is not safe at all. I already knew ever since high school that radiation is not safe and therefore, avoidance to such exposure is a must. I am no conspiracy theorist so I don’t really question our government that much but looks like that will change.

      So, do migrate to Johannesburg, South Africa to be safe from this fallout?

      P.S. that damned Canucks Stanley Cup run really was an excellent way to "smoke screen" the nuclear threat in BC

      Mary Smith

      Aug 25, 2011 at 4:08pm

      When are taxes aren't being diverted to bomb and mutilate small children on the other side of the world...aren't they supossed to be paying the wages of this government organization to look after our health and well being ?

      Maureen Yost

      Aug 25, 2011 at 10:20pm

      I am not buying anything imported from Japan that isn't tested. Many other countries have refused imports of everything from food to electronic parts due to high radioactivity but Canada has signed onto the agreement made by the USA to ignore the radioactivity and not test any products from Japan. Due to this lack of testing of seafood from the Pacific ocean which has been horribly contaminated with MOX fuel that was blown into the ocean as well as areas around the plant when reactor #3 detonated as well as all the contaminated water that was leaked into the ocean, I won't be buying any fish or seafood from here. Thank you TEPCO for not only destroying much of Japan with your incompetence and greed (TEPCO doesn't want to build the barrier to stop the radioactive water from reaching the ocean because it might lower their share value) but for also contaminating my country and the USA and other countries in the Northern Hemisphere. Nuclear power is neither cheap or safe.

      code silver

      Aug 26, 2011 at 8:46am

      Well well well... I was ranting and raving about this for months after fuku happened... But guess what? Everyone was too concerned about their date, job, tv show, long weekend, etc etc, to really care.

      I work in the sciences and I know for a fact that every hot nuclear particle we ingest is horrible for us. Background radiation? There is no background level for these types of particles.

      We have been fooled by our bullshit government, corporate fascists, because it is literally no joke when people say profits come before people....

      We have allowed our world to become completely corporate controlled, so all of you only have yourselves to blame for this. Get your fat asses out of mcdonalds drive through and figure out what is going on.

      Sheeple bahhh bahhhh.


      Aug 26, 2011 at 9:45am

      Last time I checked we DO drink rainwater in the lower mainland. It is sourced from the reservoirs on the north shore - Capilano, Seymour and Coquitlam....which are filled with rainwater/groundwater.


      Aug 27, 2011 at 8:06am

      If you haven't seen this yet, it's a must! Everyone living downwind from Japan will hopefully realise by now that the blow-up at Fukushima in March was only the very first step of this accident, which is still ongoing, possibly still including fission (keep an eye on enews.com for the latest). Certainly a massive amount of radiation still continues to spill on a daily basis. It's going to be a long hard road for all. Why? Watch the recent extremely informative and courageous speech by Professor Kodama to the Japanese Government - he's the head of the Radioisotope centre at the Tokyo Uni (Todai). He describes what the people around Fukushima are currently in for and the risks involved. Please take note, as distance does not protect you completely and the background radiation is NOT the issue here. Hot particles are easy intercontinental travelers, heading this way and will continue to do so in the coming years - please draw your own conclusions and learn about this, particularly if you have kids or want any.
      Kodama's speech is in 2 parts (absolutely do not miss the second bit) -you need to click the cc button for the English subtitles:

      Oona Krieg

      Aug 29, 2011 at 10:52am

      Am I really one of the few who are following this? I am: a mother, a partner, I love my family/friends, I like my co-workers, I try to eat well, rest, drink plenty of water, I strive to live healthy, play, educate myself and protect my family. I am extremely concerned. I eat local, but what good does that do? I drink water to stay hydrated. What good is that if the water I am drinking and giving my family to drink causes cancers. Why is there an acceptable amount of loss of life through debilitating cancers? Have the people who raise the "safe allowable" levels of radio-active materials in our ecosystem ever watched a loved one die after suffering from the ravages of these diseases? Do they sit with their children at the dinner table and with out a thought eat food grown locally and drink local water? Do they chase away the bogey men from under the bed so their babes feel safe? How can our society be so disconnected from cause and event? My son comes and sits on my lap when he feels scared, wraps his sweet little arms around my neck and nuzzles into my neck and says "Mommy, keep me safe." My fear and frustration is that right now I can't.

      Olivia Fermi

      Sep 1, 2011 at 2:47pm

      I am alarmed by the Straight's incomplete and confused reporting on Fukushima fallout in BC. In the above piece you quote Gordon Edwards, CCNR as saying, "... that no amount of radiation is safe." Actually, we can't live on Earth without being exposed to radiation from the sun. It would be more accurate to say at low levels of radiation, we don't know what safe is.

      While it's true you mention Health Canada assertions of no cause for alarm, as with prior Straight articles on this topic, you imply Health Canada is not to be trusted. If there's a valid reason, I'd like to know.

      Quoting from your article, "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." A ceiling doesn't cause anything! This is a statistical prediction -- a theoretical .00073% increased chance of getting cancer, but extra exposure in BC from Fukushima didn't even hit that level, according to your own report.

      The natural radiation we're exposed to from the sun is estimated to cause 65-90% of skin cancers (CDC). According to the American Cancer Society, one in five people develop skin cancer at some point. I fail to see how a .00073% statistical chance of getting cancer from Fukushima fallout compares with 20% chance based on actual historical trends. I wish the Straight would do a piece about the hundred's of thousands of people truly suffering in Japan from the earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima catastrophe -- and how they are coping -- instead of fear-mongering about what appears to be a non-issue in British Columbia.

      And as for our salmon, definitely let's measure the return next year and see then objectively what the situation is.

      Out Raged

      Sep 2, 2011 at 1:44am

      I cannot believe that our provincial health officer, Perry Kendall, said that we don't drink rainwater, where is that he thinks we get our drinking water from?!? This guy should not be in charge of a lunch program never mind our provincial health program, clearly there are numbers that we should all be concerned about. Instead we get "no problem here, move along"