My wife woke up this morning and found a surprise on her Facebook page. According to one particular blog entry making the rounds among some of her friends, all of a sudden every fish in the Pacific Ocean was dangerously contaminated with radiation from the leaky reactors at Japan’s crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant.
The post’s sudden and dramatic insistence that fish are poison came hard on the heels of a random e-mail from an old college friend I hadn’t spoken to in nearly 20 years asking me if it was safe for a friend to travel to Hawaii with her kids. Since two times makes a trend, as a fisheries and ocean energy expert who works closely with NOAA and other ocean science organizations, I felt completely pantsed. How did the social media mother brigade get the jump on me? Are Alaskan wild salmon lovers like our own Joe Romm going to start finding three-eyed “Simpsons” fish on their plates? I downed my first cup of coffee and launched into some fact-checking.
The upshot? While at least 42 species of fish from the area immediately surrounding the crippled nuke plant remain too radioactive to be safe for consumption, and here in the U.S., some fish, most notably Pacific Bluefin tuna, have been found with trace amounts of radiation, the levels are well below what is considered harmful — less than the amount of naturally occluding radiation in every toddler’s staple fruit: the banana.
In June, the L.A. Times reported on the work of a team of scientists who had been studying radiation in fish since the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami that left nearly 16,000 people dead in northeastern Japan and crippled the Fukushima nuclear power plant:
The team reported that a 7-ounce, restaurant-size serving of Pacific bluefin tuna contaminated with cesium at the level recorded in fish caught off the coast of San Diego in August 2011 delivered a 7.7 nanosievert dose of radiation — about 5% of the dose one would get from eating a garden-variety banana. Bananas contain a naturally occurring isotope of potassium, they wrote.
A hypothetical fisherman who consumed about five times as much fish as the average American would get… about the same amount of radiation a person receives when getting a dental X-ray, the team wrote. The increased probability of developing a fatal cancer for the hypothetical fisherman was 0.00002%, the equivalent of two additional cancers per 10 million people.
Earlier this week, the Fukushima reactor and its eternally noxious waste stream landed in the media again with the news that TEPCO, the Japanese power company which operated the plant and helmed its clean up and containment efforts, has ceded its response authority to the Japanese government.
The turnover of supervision came after the company announced that an additional 300 tons of radioactive water had leaked from the plant in recent days. Bloomberg News quoted the Japanese Trade Minister describing TEPCO’s clean-up effort as “essentially a game of ‘Whack-a-Mole.’”
Obviously, this isn’t good for the environment, but because the ocean is such a vast and dynamic place, the concentrations of toxic material are extremely low outside the immediate area around the plant. Scientists have determined that the plume of radiation won’t reach the west coast until three years after the incident, i.e. next February.
Given the type of radiation currently in the ocean, scientists’ concerns have been largely assuaged. But some risks remain of future leaks. According to Dr. Ken Buesseler, a scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, if additional radiation, particularly strontium-90, gets into the groundwater and can’t be contained, we could be looking at a more serious problem.
But at least for now, there’s no reason to stop eating seafood from the Pacific; particularly if it’s caught by U.S. fishermen, who operate under some of the strictest sustainability standards in the world.
The alarmist blog post is loaded with scare-tactics and half-truths. It’s illustrated with an incredibly freaky (and nebulously uncaptioned) image bearing the imprimatur of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and showing firey red and orange danger lines radiating out from the east coast of Japan to encompass the entirety of the largest ocean in the world.
Such images make good fodder for wary parents, intent on protecting their kids from harm, and they jump out on Facebook posts in a world of 140-character sound-bite news.
Let’s be clear: leaked radiation is bad. This is a problem that needs urgent, international attention. But at least for now, I’m happy to reassure Joe Romm and all the parents of Facebook: your fish are not glowing with Fukushima radiation. Eat up!
Now, about that whole mercury thing…
Michael Conathan is the Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress.