Islander raising money to test local waters for radiation

Since March 2011, when the tsunami caused by the 9.0 magnitude earthquake that hit Japan’s east coast hit the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant causing three of its reactors to explode, some 300 tons of radioactive materials have leaked into the Pacific Ocean. The leaks continue, along with questions about the safety of Pacific waters and seafood. Bowen Islander Michael Chapman says he is distrustful of official information on the amount of radioactive pollution that has travelled to our coast following the disaster, and has started fundraising to have local waters tested.
“I’d like to at least establish a baseline for what’s normal in terms of the radiation around us,” says Chapman. “Radiation is everywhere, but I would like to know, five years from now, have we seen an increase in the amount of radiation that’s come from Fukushima? Because the thing about radiation is that you can identify exactly where it’s come from. It is very traceable.”
Chapman says his concerns about radiation and his distrust of official information stem back to his time in Ontario, when he worked side by side with his father, who was an environmental lawyer and investigator.
Following the meltdown at the Fukushima reactor, Chapman says he feared not only the consequences of the incident, but also, that the Tokyo Electric Power Company would cover-up information.
More recently, Chapman has made unsuccessful attempts to get information about levels of radioactivity in local drinking water.
“The municipality told me they only tested for things they were obligated to test for, and testing for radioactive materials is not on that list. They told me to go talk to Vancouver Coastal Health, and they told me not to worry about it, and didn’t give me any information at all.”
For $200, Chapman purchased a Geiger counter.
“It’s Russian-made,” he says. “It measures the energy levels being put out by local sources of radiation, but it can’t tell you what kind of radiation it is. So far I’ve noticed that radiation levels are often higher during rain storms, but the information I get from the Geiger counter is really not specific enough. What’s interesting about radiation, is that with the right equipment you can determine exactly where a particular isotope has come from.”
Bowen Islander, and Executive Director of the Living Oceans Society Karen Wristen, says fears about the contamination of nuclear materials caused by the meltdown at Fukushima are not unfounded. Wristen says that she was terrified when she first heard about what happened at the nuclear power plant.
“Any thinking person should’ve been scared,” she says.
Her organization researched the impacts of the initial and ongoing leakage of nuclear materials into the Pacific, and in January, published an article on its website titled, “Should you worry about Fukushima radiation on Canada’s Pacific coast?”
“We ran a project with volunteers cleaning up tsunami debris from beaches, so we wanted to make sure it was safe to do that,” says Wristen. “But we also heard from people who were fearful about nuclear contamination, and eating seafood harvested in the Pacific. So we wanted to address those concerns.”
The Living Oceans Society delivered two main conclusions in its article. The first, is that radiation levels found off the coast of British Columbia remain low, 20 thousand times lower, in fact, than the levels allowable in Canadian drinking water. The second is that despite low levels of radiation found in some fish (bluefin tuna) it is still safe to eat seafood from the Pacific.
“When we published that, we actually received a lot of calls from people saying that if we didn’t change what we wrote, and say that radiation levels are dangerous in our waters, that they would work to get our funding pulled,” says Wristen.
Wristen says that she does think there should be more testing on the impacts of contamination caused by the Fukushima meltdown, especially when it comes to seafood.
“This is an ongoing issue,” she says. “And it is important from the standpoint of public confidence.”
Tackling misinformation is the driving force behind the crowd-funding campaign to get citizen scientists on the Pacific coast of North America to collect ocean-water samples to be analyzed for testing. Ken Buesseler, a marine chemist with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute is behind the campaign.
“There is a historical precedent of authorities being dismissive about concerns over radioactive materials, so fears about the transparency of TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) are not unfounded,” says Buesseler. “At the same time, it is an opportunity for people with an anti-nuclear agenda to says that when things go wrong they go very wrong, and its not that I disagree with that, but saying that because of this meltdown the entire Pacific is ruined forever is a very different thing.”
Buesseler adds that it is his personal belief that a lack of information feeds people’s fears and the growth of conspiracy theories.
“I know of one scientist doing radiation testing in Canadian waters,” says Buesseler, “But in the US this kind of testing falls through the cracks entirely. The NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) studies oceans but doesn’t touch anything to do with radiation or nuclear energy. The Department of Energy studies radiation, but not doesn’t do testing in the ocean. I know of some state agencies along the coast that have done some testing, but their results indicate that their methods and the equipment they use are not specialized enough to yield results that we can learn from.”
Buesseler’s campaign, called “Our Radioactive Ocean,” encourages concerned (or curious) people living to raise $600 for the purpose of testing local waters. Once they’ve reached their target and sent it to the Woods Hole Institute, they will be sent a kit that includes a container with a thermometer inside that measures the exact temperature of the water at the time of sampling. The “citizen scientist” then sends sample back to the Woods Hole Institute for testing.
So far, people at twenty-one locations have started crowd funding to purchase sample kits. Five of those locations are in British Columbia.
The Woods Hole Institute tested its first samples from this campaign, sent in from Point Reyes, California, and two locations in Washington, in January. Water samples from these locations show no trace of radioactive isotopes from Fukushima. The Cesium isotopes that were detected in the samples were present prior to the 2011 meltdown, and are attributed to nuclear weapons testing conducted in the Pacific in the 1950s.
So far, Michael Chapman has raised $250 towards the testing of Bowen Island’s coastal waters. The Whytcliff Park crowdfunding campaign for Our Radioactive Ocean has raised $320.
Ken Buesseler says regardless of what results of these tests yield, he would like to see testing continue for at least three next three years.
“Saying the leak is ‘under control,’ I don’t really like that term, but the leak of radioactive materials from Fukushima is continuing at a much lower level than at the time of the initial meltdown,” says Buesseler. “There can be no absolute promise of safety until the whole mess is cleaned-up, and that could take decades, but we can expect the levels of cesium on our coast, coming from Fukushima, to drop off entirely within a few years.”
Buesseler says that with the results of some crowdsourcing tests coming in, he feels there the crowdsourcing project has already made an impact.
“We know now, for example, that we can’t blame sea-star die-offs on radioactive isotopes from Fukushima, because they aren’t any isotopes from Fukushima,” says Buesseler. “I hope that these tests help the public understand that there was already Cesium in our ocean prior to the Fukushima meltdown. Getting people educated about the radioactive world we live in will hopefully help them put their fears into perspective.”

For more information, check out:
From the Woods Hole Institute’s FAQ about Radiation from Fukushima:

What has been released from the Fukushima reactors and how dangerous is it?
So far, we know that releases from the Fukushima reactors have been primarily composed of two radioactive substances: iodine-131 and cesium-137. In large doses, both of these isotopes or radionuclides, as they are called, can cause long-term health problems.

Will radiation be of concern along U.S. and Canadian coasts?
Levels of any Fukushima contaminants in the ocean will be many thousands of times lower after they mix across the Pacific and arrive on the West Coast of North America in 2014. This is not to say that we should not be concerned about additional sources of radioactivity in the ocean above the natural sources, but at the levels expected even short distances from Japan, the Pacific will be safe for boating, swimming, etc.

Are fish such as tuna that might have been exposed to radiation from Fukushima safe to eat?
Seawater everywhere contains many naturally occurring radionuclides, the most common being polonium-210. As a result, fish caught in the Pacific and elsewhere already have measurable quantities of these substances. Most fish do not migrate far from home, which is why fisheries off Fukushima remain closed. But some species, such as the Pacific bluefin tuna, can swim long distances and could pick up cesium in their feeding grounds off Japan. However, cesium is a salt taken up by the flesh that will begin to flush out of an exposed fish soon after they enter waters less affected by Fukushima. By the time tuna are caught in the eastern Pacific, cesium levels in their flesh are 10-20 times lower than when they were off Fukushima. Moreover, the dose from Fukushima cesium is considered insignificant relative to the dose from naturally occurring polonium-210, which was 1000 times higher in fish samples studied, and both of these are much lower relative to other, more common sources, such as dental x-rays.

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