Following Japan’s devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami, fear spread about risks of leaked radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant—for the health of those living in or near Fukushima or involved in cleanup efforts, and for the planet and the potential impacts on our complex marine food web.
Shunichi Tanaka, head of Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority, told reporters radioactive water has likely been leaking into the Pacific Ocean since the disaster hit. It’s the largest single contribution of radionuclides to the marine environment ever observed, according to one report. With 300 tons of contaminated water pouring into the sea every day, Japan’s government finally acknowledged the urgency of the situation in September.
Social media is now abuzz with people swearing off fish from the Pacific Ocean. Given the lack of information around containment efforts, some may find this reasonable. But preliminary research shows fish caught off Canada’s Pacific Coast are safe to eat.
It will take about three years from the time of the incident for the radiation plume to reach the West Coast, which would be early next year. Recent testing of migratory fish, including tissue samples collected from Pacific bluefin tuna caught off the California coast, assessed radiation levels and potential effects on marine food webs far away from Japan. Trace amounts of radioisotopes from the Fukushima plant were found, although the best available science puts them at levels below those naturally occurring in the environment around us. Natural, or background radiation, is found in many sources, including food items, medical treatments and air travel.
The most comprehensive health assessment, by the World Health Organization (WHO), concludes radioactive particles that make their way to North America’s waters will have a limited effect on human health, with concentrations predicted to be below WHO safety levels.
More reports are in the works. The UN agency charged with assessing global levels and consequences of ionizing radiation will present its findings to the UN General Assembly this month. This is where we may find answers about the amount of radioactive material released, how it was dispersed and any repercussions for the environment and food sources.
The ocean is vast and dynamic with many complexities we don’t fully understand. It appears two currents off Japan’s coast—the Kuroshio Current and Kurushio Extension—diluted radioactive material to below WHO safety levels within the first four months of the disaster. Eddies and giant whirlpools, some tens of kilometers wide, continue the dilution and will direct radioactive particles to coastal areas for at least two decades.
Fish from the water near the crippled plant are not faring so well. High levels of cesium-134, a radioactive isotope that decays rapidly, were found in fish samples there. Radiation levels in the sea around Japan have been holding steady and not falling as expected, further demonstrating that radiation leakage is not under control. At least 42 fish species from the immediate area are considered unsafe for consumption, and fisheries there remain closed.
New concerns continue to arise. While the initial leak contained cesium isotopes, water flowing into the ocean from the plant now appears to be higher in strontium-90, a radioactive substance that is absorbed differently. While cesium tends to go in and out of the body quickly, strontium heads for the bones.
A huge accumulation of radioactive water at the plant must be dealt with immediately. Determining the full effects of years of exposure to lower levels of radioactive contamination leaking into the ocean will take time and require continued monitoring and assessment. While Health Canada monitors radionuclide levels in food sold in Canada, and one of its studies incorporates samples from Vancouver, we need to remain vigilant and demand timely monitoring results.
Any amount of leaked radiation is harmful to the planet and the health of all species, including humans. A major release of radioactivity, such as that from Fukushima, is a huge concern, with unknowns remaining around long-term health risks such as cancers.
That doesn’t mean it’s unsafe to eat all fish caught on the Pacific West Coast. I’m taking a precautionary approach: fish will stay part of my diet, as long as they’re caught locally and sustainably, and will remain so until new research gives me pause to reconsider.
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1. Stay Informed<p>A first order of business in pet evacuation planning is to understand and be ready for the possible threats in your area. Visit <a href="https://www.ready.gov/be-informed" target="_blank">Ready.gov</a> to learn more about preparing for potential disasters such as floods, hurricanes, and wildfires. Then pay attention to related updates by tuning <a href="http://www.weather.gov/nwr/" target="_blank">NOAA Weather Radio</a> to your local emergency station or using the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/mobile-app" target="_blank">FEMA app</a> to get National Weather Service alerts.</p>
2. Ensure Your Pet is Easily Identifiable<p><span>Household pets, including indoor cats, should wear collars with ID tags that have your mobile phone number. </span><a href="https://www.avma.org/microchipping-animals-faq" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Microchipping</a><span> your pets will also improve your chances of reunion should you become separated. Be sure to add an emergency contact for friends or relatives outside your immediate area.</span></p><p>Additionally, use <a href="https://secure.aspca.org/take-action/order-your-pet-safety-pack" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">'animals inside' door/window stickers</a> to show rescue workers how many pets live there. (If you evacuate with your pets, quickly write "Evacuated" on the sticker so first responders don't waste time searching for them.)</p>
3. Make a Pet Evacuation Plan<p> "No family disaster plan is complete without including your pets and all of your animals," says veterinarian Heather Case in <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q9NRJkFKAm4" target="_blank">a video</a> produced by the American Veterinary Medical Association.</p><p>It's important to determine where to take your pet in the event of an emergency.</p><p>Red Cross shelters and many other emergency shelters allow only service animals. Ask your vet, local animal shelters, and emergency management officials for information on local and regional animal sheltering options.</p><p>For those with access to the rare shelter that allows pets, CDC offers <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/emergencies/pets-in-evacuation-centers.html" target="_blank">tips on what to expect</a> there, including potential health risks and hygiene best practices.</p><p>Beyond that, talk with family or friends outside the evacuation area about potentially hosting you and/or your pet if you're comfortable doing so. Search for pet-friendly hotel or boarding options along key evacuation routes.</p><p>If you have exotic pets or a mix of large and small animals, you may need to identify multiple locations to shelter them.</p><p>For other household pets like hamsters, snakes, and fish, the SPCA recommends that if they normally live in a cage, they should be transported in that cage. If the enclosure is too big to transport, however, transfer them to a smaller container temporarily. (More on that <a href="https://www.spcai.org/take-action/emergency-preparedness/evacuation-how-to-be-pet-prepared" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">here</a>.)</p><p>For any pet, a key step is to establish who in your household will be the point person for gathering up pets and bringing their supplies. Keep in mind that you may not be home when disaster strikes, so come up with a Plan B. For example, you might form a buddy system with neighbors with pets, or coordinate with a trusted pet sitter.</p>
4. Prepare a Pet Evacuation Kit<p>Like the emergency preparedness kit you'd prepare for humans, assemble basic survival items for your pets in a sturdy, easy-to-grab container. Items should include:</p><ul><li>Water, food, and medicine to last a week or two;</li><li>Water, food bowls, and a can opener if packing wet food;</li><li>Litter supplies for cats (a shoebox lined with a plastic bag and litter may work);</li><li>Leashes, harnesses, or vehicle restraints if applicable;</li><li>A <a href="https://www.avma.org/resources/pet-owners/emergencycare/pet-first-aid-supplies-checklist" target="_blank">pet first aid kit</a>;</li><li>A sturdy carrier or crate for each cat or dog. In addition to easing transport, these may serve as your pet's most familiar or safe space in an unfamiliar environment;</li><li>A favorite toy and/or blanket;</li><li>If your pet is prone to anxiety or stress, the American Kennel Club suggests adding <a href="https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/home-living/create-emergency-evacuation-plan-dog/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stress-relieving items</a> like an anxiety vest or calming sprays.</li></ul><p>In the not-unlikely event that you and your pet have to shelter in different places, your kit should also include:</p><ul><li>Detailed information including contact information for you, your vet, and other emergency contacts;</li><li>A list with phone numbers and addresses of potential destinations, including pet-friendly hotels and emergency boarding facilities near your planned evacuation routes, plus friends or relatives in other areas who might be willing to host you or your pet;</li><li>Medical information including vaccine records and a current rabies vaccination tag;</li><li>Feeding notes including portions and sizes in case you need to leave your pet in someone else's care;</li><li>A photo of you and your pet for identification purposes.</li></ul>
5. Be Ready to Evacuate at Any Time<p>It's always wise to be prepared, but stay especially vigilant in high-risk periods during fire or hurricane season. Practice evacuating at different times of day. Make sure your grab-and-go kit is up to date and in a convenient location, and keep leashes and carriers by the exit door. You might even stow a thick pillowcase under your bed for middle-of-the-night, dash-out emergencies when you don't have time to coax an anxious pet into a carrier. If forecasters warn of potential wildfire, a hurricane, or other dangerous conditions, bring outdoor pets inside so you can keep a close eye on them.</p><p>As with any emergency, the key is to be prepared. As the American Kennel Club points out, "If you panic, it will agitate your dog. Therefore, <a href="https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/home-living/create-emergency-evacuation-plan-dog/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pet disaster preparedness</a> will not only reduce your anxiety but will help reduce your pet's anxiety too."</p>
Evacuating Horses and Other Farm Animals<p>The same basic principles apply for evacuating horses and most other livestock. Provide each with some form of identification. Ensure that adequate food, water, and medicine are available. And develop a clear plan on where to go and how to get there.</p><p>Sheltering and transporting farm animals requires careful coordination, from identifying potential shelter space at fairgrounds, racetracks, or pastures, to ensuring enough space is available in vehicles and trailers – not to mention handlers and drivers on hand to support the effort.</p><p>For most farm animals, the Red Cross advises that you consider precautionary evacuation when a threat seems imminent but evacuation orders haven't yet been announced. The American Veterinary Medical Association has <a href="https://www.avma.org/resources/pet-owners/emergencycare/large-animals-and-livestock-disasters" target="_blank">more information</a>.</p>
Bottom Line: If You Need to Evacuate, So Do Your Pets<p>As the Humane Society warns, pets left behind in a disaster can easily be injured, lost, or killed. Plan ahead to make sure you can safely evacuate your entire household – furry members included.</p>
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