Food Safety in the Post-Fukushima World

A woman picks mushrooms inside Chernobyl exclusion zone by Self

Fukushima has just about completely fallen off the front pages. This is not because the nuclear power plants have stopped spewing radiation into the environment or because the situation is no longer dangerous. The only thing that’s been controlled is the media’s coverage of the disaster.

That leaves a lot of us wondering just how hazardous is the fallout from Fukushima. The EPA has a program of monitoring air, milk and water for various radionuclides. In March they stepped up the sampling but as if May 3rd they went back to taking samples every three months. The stated reason is that declining levels of radiation make it unnecessary.

The official line is that ” radiation levels detected by RadNet monitors and sampling have been very low, are well below any level of public health concern.” It’s an interesting statement because it implies that there is a level of radiation that is harmless. That’s simply not true. Very small amounts of the radionuclides produced by nuclear accidents are harmful. There is no safe level of radiation and especially not the kinds that spill out of nuclear power plants.

You have to look at the history of the science of Health Physics to understand how and why the information about results of Fukushima are false, misleading and dangerous.

The first standards for safe levels of radiation exposure were based on the health effects seen in survivors of the explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But those studies had some serious flaws.

The Hiroshima Life Span Study didn’t begin until seven years after the bomb was dropped. Everyone that died in the first seven years was excluded from the study. People were considered part of the exposed population only if they were in the city when the bomb exploded. The control group, the group that was considered unaffected by the radiation, was people who moved in after the bomb went off. The amount of radiation people inhaled or ingested was never considered.

So if, for example, a person was outside the city when the bomb dropped but went back the day after to dig through the radioactive rubble, they are considered part of the unexposed control group. Cancers that occurred in the control group weren’t counted as caused by radiation. Only the number of cancers in the exposed group that were above and beyond the “control” group were counted. This seriously flawed study has been used for decades to set safetly levels.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors haven’t been the only people exposed to radiation. Workers at nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons facilities are constantly exposed to low-levels of radiation. In 1963 John Gofman was hired by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to study the effects of radiation. He was the Director/Founder of the Lawrence Livermore Radiation Laboratory Division of Biology and Medicine.

Gofman and his partner on the project, Art Tamplin, came to the conclusion that safety standards were woefully inadequate. The AEC pulled his funding and tried to get Gofman to stop talking about the dangers of low level radiation but the man refused to shut up. In the 1982 book Nuclear Witnesses, Insiders Speak Out he said, ” Licensing a nuclear power plant is in my view, licensing random premeditated murder.”

Workers at nuclear facilities are the perfect candidates for studying the effects of long-term exposure to low-level radiation. They get medical exams before they begin working. The amount of radiation they’re exposed to is monitored and they all have social security numbers which allow them to be tracked long after they’ve left the job.

That last part is key to understanding the problem. The health effects of low-level radiation exposure can take twenty and even thirty years to show up. It’s one of the reasons that people can dismiss the effects.

We tend to notice when something hits suddenly, like the flu. But illnesses like cancer have long latency periods. It can take decades for the cancer to show up.

The AEC hired Thomas Mancuso, an epidemiologist, to put an end to all the controversy about low-level radiation. Forget whatever theory guys like Gofman might put forward about cell damage and radiation. Forget what they found in laboratories. Hard facts would put all of those concerns to rest. So they asked Mancuso to study the health of nuclear workers over twenty-five to thirty years.

Mancuso didn’t come up with the answers that the AEC wanted to hear. He found that long-term exposure to low-level radiation was, in fact, much more dangerous than anyone expected. His funding was pulled. They put an end to the study.

So when the EPA says that the radiation we’re seeing from Fukushima is not a problem you have to wonder what they’re basing that statement on. In 2006 The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) published the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation (BEIR) report, VII Phase 2. The report contains this statement , “The committee concludes that the current scientific evidence is consistent with the hypothesis that there is a linear, no-threshold dose-response relationship between exposure to ionizing radiation and the development of cancer in humans.” No threshold dose means there is no safe level of radiation exposure.

Joseph Mangano studied infant mortality rates in the populations near nuclear power plants. He found that rates of childhood cancer typically went up about one percent a year until the nuclear power plant was closed. Once the nuclear power plant closed, infant mortality rates plummeted by 20% to 25%. He looked at eight nuclear power plant closings and every single time it was accompanied by a crop of healthy babies.(Improvements in Local Infant Health After Nuclear Power Reactor Closing,” Journal of Environmental Epidemiology and Toxicology, Spring 2000.)

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission continues to say that the levels of radiation coming from the nuclear power plants in the United States has no significant impact on the health of people in the area.

Large areas of Belarus were contaminated by the fallout from Chernobyl. Many of these places have low ambient radiation but the soil is contaminated with cesium. The government wants people to move back to the contaminated areas so it declared them clean and told people it was safe to move back. There is currently no program in place to test the food. One pediatrician I spoke with said that 90% of the children in her district have chronic health problems.

We don’t really know how much radiation has leaked from Fukushima. Since the inside of the reactors are too hot for anyone to go inside, there is no way of knowing how many of the approximately 600,000 fuel rods were exposed to the air. We don’t know how much has fallen with the rain. We don’t know how much has been dumped in the ocean.

But the EPA assures us that they can take thirty samples of milk from all over the country, not even one for each state, once in three months and we’ll have a good idea of the health impacts of the radiation from Fukushima.

Radiation doesn’t fall evenly. Measuring one milk sample for an entire region is like saying you’re going to find your New York City friend by standing in the middle of Time Square and asking exactly one person if they know where he is.

We need a realistic monitoring system with more than one station in each agricultural county. Measurements should be made on a frequent basis, especially when there is an active source of contamination, like Fukushima. Also, because a huge amount of contaminated water was dumped into the ocean all seafood needs to be tested. This is the only way we can be sure that the food is radiation free.

We also need a way of measuring the amount of radiation that has collected inside human bodies. We can guess how much radiation someone is ingesting based on food testing but how much has accumulated inside them depends on what types of food they’ve eaten and how much radioactive material they might have inhaled.

Fukushima is not over yet. There are more releases to come. There are more reactors and more earthquakes yet to come. Even if we decided tomorrow to close every single nuclear power plant in the world it would take a considerable amount of time to shut them down and replace them with something else. There will be more accidents. There will be more radiation. The government and the nuclear industry will continue to tells us there’s nothing to worry about.

It won’t be easy to get this going. The nuclear industry, both civilian power plants and military weapons plants, will fight it. The nuclear industry has a big voice. General Electric, which built about 32 percent of the 104 nuclear power plants still operating in the United States, owns television networks NBC and Telemundo, Universal Pictures, Focus Features, 26 television stations in the United States and cable networks MSNBC, Bravo and the Sci Fi Channel. GE also owns 80 percent of NBC Universal.

It will be an expensive proposition to set up a good food monitoring system but it is imperative if we want to prevent an epidemic of radiation related disease and death. I think we should take that $1.1 billion that GE received in “tax benefits” in 2010 and use it to set up independent research and monitoring of food safety.




Marianne Barisonek

Marianne Barisonek is a free lance journalist in Portland, OR, USA and host at KBOO radio. Her book “Cause and Effect; Understanding Chernobyl” is available on

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