Fukushima Radiation Danger
A leading biophysicist has cast a
critical light on the government’s reassurances that
Americans were never at risk from Fukushima fallout, saying
“we really don’t know for sure.”
When radioactive fallout from Japan’s nuclear disaster began
appearing in the United States this spring, the Obama
Administration’s open-data policy obligated the government
to inform the public, in some detail, what was landing here.
Covering the story, I watched the government pursue what
appeared to be two strategies to minimize public alarm:
It framed the data with reassurances like this oft-repeated
sentence from the EPA: “The level detected is far below a
level of public health concern.” The question, of course, is
The EPA seemed to be timing its data releases to avoid media
coverage. It released its most alarming data set late on a
Friday—data that showed radioactive fallout in the drinking
water of more than a dozen U.S. cities.
Friday and Saturday data releases were most frequent when
radiation levels were highest. And despite the ravages
newspapers have suffered from internet competition,
newspaper editors still have not learned to assign reporters
to watch the government on weekends.
As a result, bloggers broke the fallout news, while
newspapers relegated themselves to local followups, most of
which did little more than quote public health officials who
were pursuing strategy #1.
For example, when radioactive cesium-137 was found in milk
in Hilo, Hawaii, Lynn Nakasone, administrator of the Health
Department’s Environmental Health Services Division, told
the Honolulu Star-Advertiser: ”There’s no question the milk
Nakasone had little alternative but to say that. She wasn’t
about to dump thousands of gallons of milk that represented
the livelihood of local dairymen, and she wasn’t authorized
to dump the milk as long as the radiation detected remained
below FDA’s Derived Intervention Level, a metric I’ll
discuss more below.
That kind of statement failed to reassure the public in part
because of the issue of informed consent—Americans never
consented to swallowing any radiation from Fukushima—and in
part because the statement is obviously false.
There is a question whether the milk was safe.
In spite of the relative level of Fukushima radiation, which
many minimized through comparison to radiation from x-rays
and airplane flights—medical experts agree that any
increased exposure to radiation increases risk of cancer,
and so, no increase in radiation is unquestionably safe.
Whether you choose to see the Fukushima fallout as safe
depends on the perspective you adopt, as David J. Brenner, a
professor of radiation biophysics and the director of the
Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University
Medical Center, elucidated recently in The Bulletin of The
Should this worry us? We know that the extra individual
cancer risks from this long-term exposure will be very small
indeed. Most of us have about a 40 percent chance of getting
cancer at some point in our lives, and the radiation dose
from the extra radioactive cesium in the food supply will
not significantly increase our individual cancer risks.
But there’s another way we can and should think about the
risk: not from the perspective of individuals, but from the
perspective of the entire population. A tiny extra risk to a
few people is one thing. But here we have a potential tiny
extra risk to millions or even billions of people. Think of
buying a lottery ticket — just like the millions of other
people who buy a ticket, your chances of winning are
miniscule. Yet among these millions of lottery players, a
few people will certainly win; we just can’t predict who
they will be. Likewise, will there be some extra cancers
among the very large numbers of people exposed to extremely
small radiation risks? It’s likely, but we really don’t know
via Fukushima: What don’t we know? | Bulletin of the Atomic
A few people certainly will “win,” which is why it’s so
interesting that the EPA’s standard for radionuclides in
drinking water is so much more conservative than the FDA’s
standard for radionuclides in food.
The two agencies anticipate different endurances of
exposure—long-term in the EPA’s view, short-term in FDA’s.
But faced with the commercial implications of its actions,
FDA tolerates a higher level of mortality than EPA does.
FDA has a technical quibble with that last sentence. FDA
spokesman Siobhan Delancey says:
Risk coefficients (one in a million, two in ten thousand)
are statistically based population estimates of risk. As
such they cannot be used to predict individual risk and
there is likely to be variation around those numbers. Thus
we cannot say precisely that “one in a million people will
die of cancer from drinking water at the EPA MCL” or that
“two in ten thousand people will die of cancer from
consuming food at the level of an FDA DIL.” These are
estimates only and apply to populations as a whole.
The government, while assuring us of safety, comforts itself
in the abstraction of the population-wide view, but from Dr.
Brenner’s perspective, the population-wide view is a lottery
and someone’s number may come up.
Let that person decide whether we should be alarmed.
SOURCE: Shannon Rudolph