Fukushima nuclear disaster raises questions about radiation levels worldwide
By Natalie Jacobs
In the wake of March 2011’s deadly earthquake/tsunami, the disastrous leakage at the Daiichi nuclear plant has raised lots of questions about radiation contamination and health concerns. While it’s obvious that those closest to the runoff in Japan continue to be displaced because of health concerns and devastation, people have been sounding alarms across the Pacific Ocean in fear of radiation spreading at dangerous levels. Science continues to show that there is nothing for the West Coast of North America to worry about, but the public still has its fears. And rightfully so, in part because there isn’t a lot of data available on baseline levels of radiation, for anywhere in the world.
That’s where entrepreneurs and scientists come in.
Sean Bonner started Safecast in 2009 to mine the globe for radiation data, deploying GPS-enabled robots (and people) to measure radiation levels in every place they could reach – which currently includes all of Japan, large swaths of the U.S., and parts of Europe, Asia and Africa. All of the data they collect, 16 million points so far, is free and open for anyone to use and analyze, which tons of people from governments to journalists currently do. This is huge, because, according to Bonner, the only other data available is published by the Japanese government, copyrighted and only contains about 3,000 points.
“We’re the source,” he explains. “Nobody else has this information. … We’ve built both a hardware and software platform to go collect readings.”
And collect they do. Their devices are GPS enabled so they drive around like a Google Street View mapper, stop, map a point, and carry on.
“Our goal with this is to create a global map of baseline levels so that if and when anything happens in the future, we’ll have really good data that shows what happened before.”
While it is not within Safecast’s purview to analyze the health affects of the radiation levels they find, Bonner is careful to note that the public always does well to fall back on science. And in this case, the science so far says we on the North American West Coast have nothing to worry about.
Ken Buesseler, senior scientist specializing in marine chemistry and geochemistry at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, has been testing and monitoring radiation levels in Fukushima and beyond since the incident occurred. He knows about the difference between appropriate and dangerous levels of cesium and other radioactive isotopes and things like biological half-lives. When asked if the North American West Coast has anything to worry about, he said: “the short answer is no. But it’s more difficult because radiation can be quite dangerous.”
He goes on to explain that radiation levels are almost never at zero, because certain amounts of radiation occur naturally. For scientists, a comfortable level is somewhere between one and several thousand becquerels (the unit of measurement used to denote radiation). Current levels off North America have only been found to be as high as 30 becquerels.
“The alarmist view,” says Buesseler, “is that every additional amount of radiation can be harmful so the risk is never zero. But it’s so low at that point that when you swim, your highest dose would be potassium 40, a naturally occurring isotope.”
Adding fuel to the “don’t panic” fire is the fact that radiation doesn’t compound on itself, so even if you are continuously exposed to these low levels, you’re not going to be any more at risk than you were when you swam through 10 becquerels of radiation three weeks ago. But it’s still important to test, which is what most of Buesseler’s job consists of.
In order to study the effects of Fukushima on the waters of North America, he has been speaking with various government agencies to see who is in charge of what parts of the oceans. It turns out, no one is, so that makes it nearly impossible to get funding for research projects like his. To combat that, he has undertaken a few crowdsourcing projects to harness the power of academia and the general public in gathering and assessing radiation data.
“The crowdfunding was really set up in response to the concern about the west coast of North America. We’re trying to get samples from San Diego to Alaska and we’re also doing Hawaii. We’ve also been studying off of Japan where the levels continue to be higher than on our coastline because there are continued sources [of radiation leakage]. It’s not back down … so we want to be diligent and monitor that.”
Due to the silent nature of radiation and many people’s belief that their governments are untrustworthy with their information, both Bonner and Buesseler are providing solutions which can keep you informed regardless of your views on this topic. With their tools you can take your health and that of family’s into your own hands.
Regardless of whether or not you believe that you are being poisoned from across the Pacific, we live in an irradiated world — from cell phones to smart meters to the hundreds upon hundreds of nuclear tests in the American southwest, naturally protecting yourself from the effects heavy metals is something everyone should educate themselves about considering the amount of toxicity in our industrialized world.
For some simple and natural lifestyle and dietary steps you can take to make yourself a healthier human, check out these tips.