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Fukushima Fallout: How worried should we be?

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Fukushima Fallout: How worried should we be?

dylan lared

Ever since the disastrous meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear facility in March of 2011 I have been receiving concerned questions about the safety of Alaskan seafood. It's not that far, after all, from Japan to Alaska (or the West Coast in general) and things do move around out there. The conversation has reached a bit of a crescendo recently with talk of migrating ocean plumes and slowly-decaying cesium and four-legged flounders terrorizing the citizens of San Francisco. (Ok, I haven't actually heard anything about four-legged flounders, but spend enough time with just yourself and the Google and you can find some stuff that comes pretty close.) The fact is that nuclear power, and especially the fallout when things don't go as planned, is a very scary and contentious issue. There a lot of people who have been grinding axes in one camp or another for a long time, and as such have a vested interest in convincing us (and themselves) that radioactive contamination from Fukushima is either a) no big deal, or b) apocalyptic. Is there a quick and easy way to sort through all the information and disinformation and come to a concise, clear, and accurate consensus on what seafood is safe to eat? 

The answer is no. And not just because there are a lot of various scientific studies containing long and Latin-heavy nouns to go through, but because no one can decide what is and is not 'safe' for consumption. Sure, we have an elaborate bureaucratic structure designed to ensure that what is 'safer' ends up on the supermarket shelves. But ultimately that system deals with very specific definitions of safety that are not necessarily consistent with the requirements you or I might have for what we would like to put in our bodies. (For instance, in the 1930's that very health-and-safety apparatus approved the Twinkie for sale-to and consumption-by people of all ages. Think about it next time you check the diabetes statistics...) I cannot tell you what is safe for you to eat. I can make available the opinions of those people and organizations whose job it is to see that food sold in this country meets a broad standard of safety and I can point you to various other resources of information and explication.

According to the Food and Drug Administration:

"To date, FDA has no evidence that radionuclides from the Fukushima incident are present in the U.S. food supply at levels that would pose a public health concern. This is true for both FDA-regulated food products imported from Japan and U.S. domestic food products, including seafood caught off the coast of the United States. Consequently, FDA is not advising consumers to alter their consumption of specific foods imported from Japan or domestically produced foods, including seafood"

And the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation says that "Fish and shellfish from Alaskan waters and beaches are not affected by the nuclear reactor damage in Japan and are safe to eat." To visit the Alaska DEC's page and find links to the FDA, EPA, and NOAA please click here.

To see a detailed, though highly scientific in its rhetoric (and rather 90's in it aesthetics), presentation delivered at the PICES North Pacific Marine Sciences Consortium meeting in Nanaimo, BC in October of 2013 click here.  The presentation, entitled Radionuclide Transport from Fukushima to Eastern North Pacific, is mostly about the migration of the various radioactive materials and the different methods of testing and modeling them. However on slide 26 the researchers remark that "These levels are still well below maximum permissible concentrations in drinking water for 137Cs of 10,000 Bq/m3: Not an environmental or human health radiological threat!"

Over at Deep Sea News they put together a nice blog post with summaries and links to 12 different scientific and journalistic resources that would be a very good place to start for anyone wanting a decent overview of the situation. You can find it here.

If you want to keep abreast of research as it unfolds, and even become involved with a non-governmental effort to monitor the radioactive situation in the Pacific, check out this joint effort between the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution  and the Center for Marine and Environmental Radiation here

In full disclosure you will notice that these links all agree  Pacific seafood is safe to eat by their standards. Quite frankly, this is only because I could not find a thoughtful argument for the opposite. Everything I found claiming that Pacific seafood was dangerous amounted to nothing but blatant scare mongering built on third hand accounts and youtube videos. If anyone has information or resources to the contrary please send them my way. 

To reiterate: I cannot tell anyone else what is safe. Having read these resources myself I can say that I will be eating fish this year, and most likely for many to come.