One of many vending machines that are sold out of bottled water (the red tells you that it's empty). I imagine that there's not a drop of water to drink in any vending machine in Tokyo right now.
Several months ago, one of my students caught a cold which was capped off with a lingering cough. When I mentioned to her that I'd also had colds which dissipated and left a cough behind, she asked me what I had done about it. I told her, "nothing". She then asked me, in total earnestness, how one could get better if one did not go to a doctor. After a moment of surprise, I said, "the human body can fix itself."
While my student was aware of the idea of an immune system and what it does, there's a deep sense among Japanese people that you need to have a doctor and medication "fix" you when you get sick. In some cases, obviously, this is true. Serious injuries or illnesses require medical intervention, but a human body with a healthy immune system can "right" many physical "wrongs" all on its own with a little time and with proper maintenance of said body (exercise, good nutrition, etc.).
Our bodies are bombarded by toxins, poisons, and biological threats like bacteria and viruses every moment of our lives. Yes, they are even dealing with radiation all of the time. Fans of bananas are actually putting more radioactive material in their bodies than consumers of other types of foods as bananas are higher in radiation than most comestibles. Fortunately, our bodies manage to process most damage, if there is any, from common forms of radiation.
As of March 22, there has been a new panic because of higher levels of radioactive particles in the Tokyo tap water. This was almost certainly the result of the first rain since the quake and resulting nuclear crisis in Fukushima. Those who know about the effects of such incidents expected this to happen. In fact, I knew full well what was coming and was hoping the rain would hold off a little longer in order to keep the next freak out at bay. The bottleneck in supply created by supply line issues, needs in disaster-stricken areas, panic-buying and hoarding was just starting to clear up and this sent everyone into a spin again.
The fear about the food and water supply is based in realistic concerns. After all, most of the serious health consequences related to Chernobyl were not related to radiation exposure in the area itself, but to consumption of tainted food and drink. However, that situation was dramatically different in that the effects of that disaster were hidden and people were exposed unnecessarily to radiation at high levels for a long period of time. In Japan, the authorities have a much higher standard to adhere to, and a different type of government. The chances that the food and drink would be allowed to be contaminated at a level that would threaten the health of the population are zero.
My conclusion about the danger has nothing to do with confidence in the Japanese government and their desire to "do the right thing". In fact, the Japanese have already shown in their history that they will cover up health threats if they think they can get away with it. The bottom line here is that "getting away with it" in this particular case is going to be nearly impossible. Not only do you have average citizens armed with Geiger counters reporting on radiation levels and access to the various social networks and outlets of the internet, but you also have international entities (world governments, the IAEA) watching intently. The fact that the U.S. Embassy, which isn't prone to spamming people, has been e-mailing me regularly about the developments is evidence of that. With so many eyes upon them, and with some of the threat directed at Tokyo, home of many foreign businesses and embassies as well as the capital and government offices and officials, the government can't afford to lie. They would be caught in any act of deceit within minutes of uttering such falsehoods and the price Japan would pay economically would be nothing short of catastrophic as no one would ever trust their products again nor the safety of coming to this country. They would make their goods and country (but not their people) the equivalent of international pariahs.
Much is being made about the fact that the amount of radioactive Iodine in tap water in Tokyo was over the limit Japan has set for infants and uncomfortably edging too close for comfort to the limit set for adults. Currently, Japan allows 300 becquerels per kilogram for adult consumption and 100 bq/kg for infants. The levels at one Tokyo water purification plant had reached 210 bq/kg, which sounds scarily close to the adult limit when you're already jittery about radiation. However, it's important to keep in mind that Japan has very strict limits, far stricter than most other regulatory bodies in other countries. The irony of this is that Japan set this low limit not to protect its own citizens from radiation, but rather to apply those standards to imported products from other countries. It's almost certainly the case that they never expected those standards to come back and bite them in the ass in their own backyard as I'm sure they felt they wouldn't suffer any sort of nuclear accidents due to their attention to safety. They just didn't figure on a 9.0 quake near enough to a reactor to put them in this position.
One part of all of this which has helped me cope is that I studied basic chemistry and have a rudimentary knowledge about radiation and radioactive particles. The Iodine-131 that is in the water has a half life of 8 days. That means that it will decay to half the current levels after a little over a week and then half again after that and so on. The danger is short-lived and bearable provided that a great deal more radiation isn't spewing out of the reactors through a prolonged period of time. If the crisis in Fukushima is resolved or at least continues to get no worse, the radiation levels will rapidly drop through time. The likelihood that overall radiation levels will shoot back up again is low considering that it's unlikely (though, not impossible) that TEPCO will lose control such that the situation is set back to square one.
As of the time this post has been written, the levels in Tokyo water have dropped back down to levels that are safe for infants after just one day as the rain has slowed down and the initial onslaught that the first rain brought has been dispersed. If you want to know when it's time to panic and run away, it will be when high levels of Cesium are found in the water or when atmospheric or Iodine levels in the water consistently go up for a prolonged period of time. Cesium has a half life of 32 years, and is a far greater concern. We're not there yet. My guess is that we'll never get there, but I do remain attentive to changes.
Saying that we are currently not exposed to any health threats is not the same as saying, "don't worry, be happy." Only a fool would be sanguine about the notion of consuming water or food with radioactive particles in it, but there is discomfort and concern and then there is overreacting. I'm not happy about radioactive water, but I'm also not happy that the tap water I drink used to have human waste in it and has been filtered and treated to make it safe to consume. I'm also not happy about pollution, pesticides, and chemicals in my food, water and air, but like the rest of the people of the world residing in advanced cultures I accept that the levels at which these things occur is not fatal and that the toxicity can be filtered out by the mechanisms that regularly protect my body.
We are poisoned by various substances everyday and the body recovers. Right now, I consider remaining in Tokyo similar to being in a starvation situation and eating slightly moldy bread for a few months to survive. It's not good for me and certainly places strain on my kidneys or liver for awhile, but it's not going to kill me. The radiation in the air and water is not good for me, but I believe it is at a level which the body can tolerate and recover from provided the exposure ends and a healthier environment returns. Obviously, it is important to track the progress of the situation, and if it carries on for a long period of time, even low level exposure should be cause for more serious concern and a reassessment of the prudence of remaining.
It's not a good thing to tax your body in this fashion, but it is part of what it copes with everyday in varying ways through a wide variety of experiences. Our bodies generally do quite well when one is relatively healthy and hearty. My decision to remain in Japan despite the problems we've been having are based on knowing the extremely low probability that I'll even be exposed to toxic levels of radiation in the food, water and air, let alone deadly ones. The bottom line is that I have confidence that unless my bodily systems are overwhelmed by the duration or quantity of radiation (which is not a point we're at yet by a long shot) that "the human body can fix itself."