It’s now over three and a half years since the earthquake-triggered nuclear disaster in Japan, and concerns regarding the impacts continue. In Japan itself, the impacts have been huge and disastrous indeed, depending on location — and upon one’s source of information. Allegations of mismanagement, secrecy, and longterm impacts ranging up to the apocalyptic continue. Radiation seems to frighten many of us as much or more than anything else, and the rise of the internet has fostered these fears via endless terrifying posts of impending doom, or at least mass sickness.
Many very smart scientists feel nuclear power plants should be shut down, not because of any existing exposures thus far but due to the ongoing threat of disasters much worse than we've seen. I agree with them. This is a difficult position to take given looming climate-related horrors and the imperative of moving to non-fossil energy sources, but the problems of human error - no technology is truly foolproof, and never will be - and nuclear waste make nuclear plants a Faustian bargain we'll too likely eventually lose. Just the fact that major insurers won't take out policies on such plants is very telling.
But let's consider Fukushima's risks here in California, in light of reputable, non-conflicted sources and not scaremongering. Beyond the over 15,000 deaths and many more injuries and complete disruption of lives in Japan related to the earthquake, tsunami and related destruction, the World Health Organization has estimated minimal actual radiation exposure, morbidity, and mortality. However, it is expected that people in the area most impacted may have a slightly higher risk of leukemia and thyroid and breast cancers.
Here on the California coast especially, worries persist, especially among those with EIAS (Excess Internet Access Syndrome) combined with the even more common lack of scientific education. Yes, recent public reports have noted detectable radiation in tuna caught off the West Coast; in October, the esteemed Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution reported Fukushima radiation — mainly Cesium — was finally nearing the West Coast. But the experts measuring the radiation note also that the it is at very low levels that aren’t expected to harm human health or the environment. “I’m not concerned,” said the chemical oceanographer measuring the radiation.
The United States Food and Drug Administration states that there is “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.”
The United States Food and Drug Administration states that fish from Alaska — even though closer to Japan — are “safe from radiation.”
If one is of the type to distrust any such mainstream sources, especially - gasp - governmental ones, consider Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), the leading anti-nuclear organization with a focus on health. They can hardly be accused of being pro-nuke in any way, and their umbrella organization received a Nobel Peace Prize for opposing nukes of all types. But being doctors and other trained professionals, they tend to require that science and factual information guide their positions and advocacy (disclosure: I am a longtime PSR member).
PSR has stated that Fukushima-related radiation risks here are not a real cause of worry, although further disasters at Fukushima “could alter that opinion.” In a panel discussion on Fukushima’s impacts I moderated last year, a leading nuclear physicist, the PSR president, and a Marin coastal physician all concurred that residents on California’s coast did not have reason to worry. The clinician said she gets many concerned questions, especially from parents of young children, but still feelt that the benefits of eating fish outweigh any suspected risk, and that she and her own kids still eat it. However, one physician and researcher I work with who has much expertise in environmental health has recently noted “I’d avoid eating fish caught in Japan — especially sushi.”
So there you have it - if you wish to be extra careful, beware certain sushi (sushis?). And if you really want to stay healthy, don't smoke, do wear your seatbelts and/or minimize driving at all, exercise, get your recommended shots, cut down or eliminate eating meat, wear a helmet when on two wheels, keep a good vitamin D level, avoid guns or cocaine or meth, go easy on the booze (the much-publicized supposed benefits of drinking even moderately have been “dialed back” by research ever since), be careful when biking or skiing or other possible 'contact' sports (especially, it now seems, football), have some money around, and make sure your genes are good. Those are things we know to be healthy. Most other such advice tends to originate from unwarranted fear or outright paranoia, wishful thinking, and/or profiteering. Thus, finally - careful what you read!