Tohoku tsunami radiation to reach US coast?

Albert Andrade
September 18, 2013
Filed under Health Life

As 2014 nears, some are concerned about the plume of incoming radioactive material from Japan said to reach the U.S. coast.

Since the Tohoku tsunami that ravaged Japan on March 11, 2011, a large plume of radioactive material traveling with the ocean’s current will reach U.S. coastal waters in 2014, and will peak in 2016, according to ocean current estimations from LiveScience.

The Fukushima nuclear plant has leaked over 20 trillion becquerels — a measurement of radioactivity — of cesium-137, which has been linked to increased risk of cancer.

In addition, over a year ago, Stanford scientists were beginning to find trace amounts of cesium-137 in live migratory bluefin tuna off the coast of California, according to Stanford News.

These tuna, known to migrate with the same current pushing the radioactive material, were suspected by the scientists to be swimming in proximity of the Japanese fallout.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, cesium is a metal that may be nonradioactive or radioactive. Cesium-137 is much more significant as an environmental contaminant than cesium-134, and is the most common form.

The tuna were living examples of the migratory patterns that rode the current. Just under a year ago, a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, traced to Japan, was found off the coast of British Columbia, Canada, according to a Harley-Davidson Museum press release.

This discovery, along with many accounts of material that ended up on the shores, indicates that the radioactive material may end up reaching the coast of California in the near future.

Although the North Pacific gyre circulates and dilutes the material across the Pacific to an insignificant point, the effect on the marine biology is speculative.

“The radioactive debris coming up here is almost negligible — almost nothing — whereas possibly fish carried in this current are suspect,” says William Selby, a Santa Monica College environmental studies professor.

According to the EPA, the radioactive cesium-137 has a half-life of about 30 years, meaning that it will not prove inert with time, but more specifically with space.

“As you work your way from that, in a radius around that region, the ripple effect is less and less,” says Selby. “It’s like throwing a stone in the water; as that wave goes forward it gets smaller and smaller.”

The water acts as a shield and diluting agent, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

“In the case of a direct release into the sea, the amount of water in the ocean rapidly dilutes and disperses the radiation to negligible levels,” states the FDA.

With the research of more than 32,000 specimens, it was found that the material in Japan, and some reaching the U.S. coast, poses no serious public health concerns.

“If it is even by a washed up piece of kelp, or even anything that could carry radiation, it could affect all the other fish,” says Sergio Huitzil, a veteran fisherman.

Fishermen along the Santa Monica Pier may feel a mix of concern and apprehension since they act as the middlemen, consumers and purveyors, and if there was a spike in radiation levels of fish, they would remain unaware.

“No one carries a radiation scanner with them,” says Huitzil. “We don’t do our own research, we just cut and filet the fish and put it right on the table so there is some sort of worry there.”

In addition, the FDA and Customs and Border Protection screen all Japanese food products and conduct field examinations. However, with radioactive material that will not decay for another 30 years, the issue would likely need to be reexamined frequently.

As the leak continues at the Fukushima plant, the Japanese government will continue to battle the lasting effects of the tsunami.

“That area in the region of the power plant is still a disaster,” says Selby. “Just a total disaster.”

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