Friday, March 25, 2011

Variety Friday: Radioactive Food and Drink in Japan

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."


gεn said...

Nice article. I agree with it as well. Iodine is far from the biggest threat there is to the population, as it decays quickly, and its effects can be reduced by potassium iodide pills (and the iodized salt everyone uses).

Kasia said...

This is a very thoughtful article and I absolutely agree :) I also believe a pragmatic view of life is best in most cases, not too cool, but not pointlessly nervous either. Open to what will happen next. But also to be alert and alarmed in case of real emergency, not to lose focus and "fall asleep" out of fear or wish "this cannot be true".

I found a very good article about Iodide and radiation poisoning in general at Scientific American, maybe it is interesting: Does Potassium Iodide Protect People from Radiation Leaks?. I was a little kid when Chernobyl happened, and I was not that far away from it, and no one told me anything or gave me Iodide - and today I DO have a grave cancer like illness destroying my immune system. I wish such information would be available back then, and also, I think - from my perspective - that you are doing it right and the protection level is very high. I am sure if anything should happen the US Embassy will send you information about it.

Paul said...

On your blog about the nook, you mentioned location problems related to being in Japan. This won't help for a nook bookstore that I'm assuming is in the iPad app, but you can use the program UltraSurf (.net) to get an American IP for browsing.

I couldn't bear without watching RuPaul's Drag Race on Logo's website so I had to find a reliable way to outsmart the location check :p

pps- Thank you SO much for the job advice back in January. Sorry that I never replied :( I got really busy with college starting and life just kind of rolled on with emails stacking up. That was really rude of me, especially because your email was so thoroughly written. Hope you forgive me for that :(((

Kelly said...

Ah, a cool breath of sanity. Even the US is in a panic mode of sorts. I was in Illinois over spring break and the local news was reporting how some radiation was detected by counters in Illinois and how no one should panic... etc. How dumb. Of course we shouldn't panic. I get more radiation living in a brick building close to a coal plant than I ever will from Japan.

Illinois gets the majority of its power from nuclear energy and people apparently suddenly decided they were dangerous which I find quite sad. Nuclear power isn't perfect and yes, I would like them to be safe, but I don't believe that unduly panicking about it is going to help anyone.

BradleyNASH said...

Might be crazy to ask... but do you think I should start watching my imports?

Aimee said...

I'm glad you're keeping your head about you. I understand why people in Tokyo are nervous, but I also feel like they're trying to create a disaster where there isn't one. In Sendai things are surprisingly calm and there is plenty of water on shelves. It's interesting for me to see the contrast.

Orchid64 said...

First of all, thanks to everyone for the kind comments and for taking the time to leave a word. I really appreciate it!

gen: Thank you!

Kasia: I'm so sorry about your situation. Also, thank you for the article link. I'll check it out when I have some more time (which is in short supply these days).

Paul: No problem at all! I wasn't holding a grudge so no forgiveness necessary! :-) And thanks for the info. I'll tell my husband and he can try it out on his iPad.

Kelly: I'm disappointed in the U.S. panic about all of this. I understand their concern, and we all need to keep an eye on things, but they are so far away that the chances of any lethal exposure is limited, and I think people need to know all forms of energy generation carry risk. Certainly, nuclear power has great potential to do harm, but I can't imagine the overall track record is much worse than that with oil in terms of environmental damage.

Bradley: Right now, the U.S. government has your back. They have banned all agricultural products from affected areas and are scanning any imports from Japan. I wouldn't worry about it except that, if I were a seafood consumer, I'd stay away from West coast or Japanese fish and seafood. The main problem is that, while the radiation spread is localized, the animals affected by it can move. I have no idea how far fish that were hit by Cesium blown out to sea, but it is a legitimate concern. Chances are still probably pretty tiny, but Cesium is long-lived and more dangerous than the radioactive Iodine.

Everybody take care!

Traveling Tech said...

Kelly mentioned that there was already worry in the US regarding exposure. I cannot agree more.

I travel a lot and so I see a lot of different things. One item that actually had me laughing was a recent headline at the top of the Fargo, ND local paper: "Is F-M in danger of radiation?"

The ability for the general populous to panic is sometimes a bit comical at best. I am exposed to more radiation just flying around the country than the average person would encounter in the US from the the Fukushima situation. I have to ask if people have just stopped thinking for themselves, or are they just so trained to trust our media no matter how silly or nonsensical the information.

Orchid64, thank you for both a thoughtful informative post and your continued updates on life in Japan since the disaster. I lived at Yokota AFB when I was a child, and have always loved the country since then.

Orchid64 said...

Traveling Tech: I just wanted to thank you for the interesting comment. The panic in the U.S. really is curious, but sort of understandable. It is scary to think of radiation flowing ones way, but the overreaction is comical (and a bit tiring).

Traveling Tech said...

I have to agree that it is a bit tiring. But it also seems that the hysteria is driven into a frenzy by the media. With the 24hr news sources we have today people are over exposed to the situation and become panicked just because of the sheer volume. Fortunately, or unfortunately, the main story lately is more about Libya than it is Japan so I don't think that people are as bad now as they were at first.

Yokatta said...

Extremely good article, thank you so much for great read, I'm getting so tired reading and following mainstream media as they do not disclose the truth and tend to contradict themselves.

Orchid64 said...

Thanks, Yokatta! I appreciate that!