How Worried Should We Be About Nuclear Fallout From Fukushima?
Amid anti-nuclear protests early this month, Japan restarted its first nuclear reactor since the Fukushima disaster in March 2011. Despite strong opposition, including from former Prime Minister Naoto Kan, Kyushu Electric Power put one of the two reactors at its Sendai facility along the nation's southwestern coast back online. The second is scheduled to restart in October.
In the face of opinion polls showing most voters oppose restarting the country's nuclear power generation, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe argued that it is not economically feasible to keep importing foreign oil and natural gas and that the nation's increasing dependence on thermal energy threatens greenhouse gas emission reduction goals.
— The Mass Deception (@MassDeception1) August 23, 2015
But as Japan's concerns about its nuclear future grip the nation, North America continues to worry about the ongoing fallout caused by the Fukushima meltdown as ocean currents carry radioactivity to the western coasts of Canada and the U.S.
Ethan Stewart, a reporter for the Santa Barbara Independent, wrote about the "drumbeat of terror" that gripped California in early 2014:
"The panic started sometime after the New Year. It found its way to my inbox and my Twitter feed, took up residence on my Facebook wall and dominated conversations with friends and colleagues. I read reports titled 'Holy Fukushima—Radiation Already Killing North Americans' and '28 Signs That the West Coast Is Being Absolutely Fried with Nuclear Radiation from Fukushima' and 'The Worldwide Nuclear Crisis That No One Is Talking About.' These were no-holds-barred declarations that Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster was now a threat to life as we know it here on the West Coast."
But scientists who have analyzed the effects of the nuclear fallout in North America have found precious little to fret about. A month after the disaster, kelp beds off the California coast were contaminated with the short-lived iodine-131, a radioactive isotope with an 8-day half-life.
"Kelp forests are some of the most productive ecosystems on Earth," said Steven Manley, a biologist and kelp expert at the California State University at Long Beach. "One thing about [kelp] is it has a large surface canopy," he said, pointing to the fact that because it is always exposed to air, kelp absorbs all the various contaminants in the air. Though Manley said that the presence in the marine environment of iodine-131, a product of nuclear fission that is not found in nature, "was significant," he added that "it's definitely not harmful to humans."
In June 2012, two radioactive isotopes, cesium-134 (with a half-life of two years) and cesium-137 (with a half-life of 30 years), were detected in the seawater at a location some 1500 km (930 miles) west of British Columbia, according to a study published in December and conducted by scientists from the University of Rhode Island and Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Cesium isotopes have been released into the atmosphere ever since nuclear testing began in 1945. Today, it is a component of radioactive fallout.
By June 2013, the "Fukushima signal," as it is known, had reached the Canadian continental shelf. By February of this year, the signal had increased to a value of 2 Becquerels (Bq) per cubic meter throughout the upper 150 meters (500 feet) of the water column. The study's authors said that the increase resulted in "an overall doubling of the fallout background from atmospheric nuclear weapons tests."
Global cesium-137 levels, pre-Fukushima. Photo credit: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
While "doubling of the fallout background" may sound somewhat ominous, 2 Bq per cubic meter is a tiny amount of radiation. Ken Buesseler, an oceanographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, put it into perspective in a Reddit AMA last fall. He said that if you went swimming in a part of the Pacific Ocean that had 10 Bqs per cubic meter of cesium-134 or 137, you could swim six hours day, 365 days a year and still only get a radioactive dose that was "more than 1,000 times less than a single dental x-ray."
Pavel Povinec of Comenius University in Slovakia and Katsumi Hirose of Sophia University in Japan studied seawater and biota samplings collected offshore from Fukushima and the Pacific northwest. They found that the total effective dose from an average annual consumption of contaminated fish, shellfish and seaweed caught in coastal waters off Fukushima was estimated to be anywhere between 0.2 to 1.0 millisieverts (mSv) a year.
Again, it's a tiny amount. According to the American Cancer Society, the average American is exposed to about three times that amount from natural sources over the course of a year. You would receive about 8 mSv from a single standard x-ray of your abdomen. The estimated individual doses of eating fish and seafood from the Fukushima region, the researchers concluded, "have been below the levels when any health damage of the Japanese and world population could be expected."
Still, scientists continue to measure the Fukushima signal. Last month, the icebreaker CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier collected samples of surface seawater as it traveled between Victoria, British Columbia, to Dutch Harbor, Alaska. The mission was the latest chapter of the ongoing research conducted as part of the Integrated Fukushima Ocean Radionuclide Monitoring (InFORM) Network, a collaborative radiation monitoring program to understand the environmental risks for Canada's Pacific and Arctic oceans from the Fukushima disaster. Results will be made available on the InFORM website in a few months.
"This information will help to determine how well model predictions of the activities and progression of ocean-borne contamination across the Pacific Ocean match with observations," said Jay T. Cullen, a marine chemist and oceanographer at the University of Victoria. "Understanding the spread of this contamination provides important information on the impact of the Fukushima Dai-ichi disaster on the health of the Pacific ecosystem and the North American public."
The researchers from the University of Rhode Island and Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans estimate that the future total level of cesium-137 will reach maximum values by 2015-'16 "before declining to levels closer to the fallout background" by 2012. They conclude: "The increase in cesium-137 levels in the eastern North Pacific from Fukushima inputs will probably return eastern North Pacific concentrations to the fallout levels that prevailed during the 1980s but does not represent a threat to human health or the environment."
Locations where surface seawater samples were collected for the InFORM project in July 2015. Photo credit: InFORM
But while scientists have failed to find reason for concern, there continues to be public worry about the radioactivity that leaked from the Fukushima plant and how it may impact the food system and human health. Donald W. Miller, Jr., professor emeritus of surgery at the University of Washington in Seattle, explains our seemingly irrepressible fear of radiation:
"Along with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), elected government officials, newspapers science writers, TV reporters and journalists and consequently, most Americans believe that low doses of radiation are harmful. People have "radiophobia"—the fear that any level of ionizing radiation, no matter how small, is dangerous. Why? For one thing, the news media fosters it because fear sells. Scary stories about the dangers of radiation keep people tuned in. Another reason, which lies deeper in the collective psyche, is that this phobia expresses the deep-seated sense of revulsion that Americans feels over the devastation and loss of life cause by the atomic bombs that its country dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II."
In addition, many people don't realize that radioactivity is not only all around us, but within us. As Stephen Frantz, former director of the Reed College Nuclear Reactor, points out:
"The human body contains radioactive elements. Naturally occurring potassium-40, carbon-14, uranium and thorium are present in every human body. Together they undergo about half a million decays every minute … Approximately half a million times every minute of your life a radioactive atom in your body decays and irradiates you from inside with radiation. This has happened every minute of your life."
Radioactivity in some natural and other materials, include:
Photo credit: World Nuclear Association
"Life on Earth has developed with an ever present background of radiation," notes Eric J. Hall, a professor of radiology at Columbia University, in his book Radiation and Life. "It is not something new, invented by the wit of man: radiation has always been there."
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Since even moderate-intensity workouts offer a slew of benefits, walking is a good choice for people looking to stay healthy.
How to Rock Your Walk<p>Walking isn't just fun and healthy. It's accessible.</p><p>"Walking is cheap," says Dr. John Paul H. Rue, a sports medicine doctor at <a href="https://mdmercy.com/" target="_blank">Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore</a>. "You can do it anywhere at any time; [it] requires little to no special equipment and has many of the same cardio benefits as running or other more intense workouts."</p><p>Want to up your walking game? Try the tips below.</p>
Use Hand Weights<p>Cardio and strength training can go hand-in-hand when you add weights to your walk.</p><p>A <a href="https://journals.lww.com/acsm-msse/Fulltext/2019/03000/Associations_of_Resistance_Exercise_with.14.aspx" target="_blank">2019 study</a> found that weight training is good for your heart, and <a href="https://www.mayoclinicproceedings.org/article/S0025-6196(17)30167-2/abstract" target="_blank">research</a> shows it reduces the risk of developing a <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/nutrition-metabolism-disorders" target="_blank">metabolic disorder</a> by 17 percent. People with metabolic disorders have a higher chance of being diagnosed with high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes.</p><p>Rue suggests not carrying weights for your entire walk.</p><p>"Hand weights can give you an added level of energy burning, but you have to be careful with these because carrying [them] over a long period of time or while walking could actually lead to some overuse injuries," he says.</p>
Make It a Circuit<p>As another option, consider doing a circuit. First, put a pair of dumbbells on your lawn or somewhere in your home. Walk around the block once, then stop and do some bicep curls and tricep lifts before walking around the block again.</p><p>Rue recommends <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/exercise-fitness/running-with-weights" target="_blank">avoiding ankle weights</a> during cardio workouts, as they force you to use your quadriceps rather than hamstrings. They can also cause muscle imbalance, according to the <a href="https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/wearable-weights-how-they-can-help-or-hurt" target="_blank">Harvard Health Letter</a>.</p>
Find a Fitness Trail<p>Strength training isn't limited to weights. You can get stronger by <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/bodyweight-workout" target="_blank">simply using your body</a>.</p><p>Often found at parks, fitness trails are obstacle courses with equipment for pullups, pushups, rowing, and stretches to build upper and lower body strength.</p><p>Try searching "fitness trails near me" online, checking out your local parks and recreation website, or calling the municipal office to <a href="https://calisthenics-parks.com/" target="_blank">find one</a>.</p>
Recruit a Friend<p>People who workout together stay healthy together.</p><p><a href="https://bmcgeriatr.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12877-017-0584-3" target="_blank">One study</a> showed that older adults who exercised with a group improved or maintained their functional health and enjoyed their lives more.</p><p>Enlist the help of a walking buddy with a regimen you aspire to have. If you don't know anyone in your area, apps like <a href="https://www.strava.com/" target="_blank">Strava</a> have social networking features so you can get support from fellow exercisers.</p>
Try Meditation<p>According to the <a href="https://www.nccih.nih.gov/research/statistics/nhis/2017" target="_blank">2017 National Health Interview Survey</a>, published by the National Institutes of Health, meditation is on the rise, and for good reason.</p><p>Researchers <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29616846/" target="_blank">found</a> that mind-body relaxation practices can regulate inflammation, <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/biological-rhythms" target="_blank">circadian rhythms</a>, and <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/glucose" target="_blank">glucose</a> metabolism, as well as lower <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/high-blood-pressure-hypertension" target="_blank">blood pressure</a>.</p><p>"Any form of exercise can be turned into a meditation of some type, either by the surroundings you are walking in, like a park or trail, or by blocking out the outside world with music on your headphones," Rue says.</p><p>You can also play a podcast or download an app like <a href="https://www.headspace.com/headspace-meditation-app" target="_blank">Headspace</a> that has a library of guided meditations to practice while you walk.</p>
Do Fartlek Walks<p>Typically used in running, fartlek intervals alternate periods of increased and decreased speed. These are <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/benefits-of-hiit" target="_blank">high-intensity interval training (HIIT)</a> workouts, which allow exercisers to accomplish more in less time.</p><p><a href="https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0154075" target="_blank">One study</a> showed that 10-minute interval training improved <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/metabolic-syndrome" target="_blank">cardiometabolic</a> health, or lowered the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, just as well as working out at a continuous pace for 50 minutes.</p><p><a href="https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0111489" target="_blank">Research</a> also shows that HIIT workouts increase muscle <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/fast-twitch-muscles" target="_blank">oxidative</a> capacity, or the ability to use oxygen. To do a fartlek walk, try walking at an increased pace for 3 minutes, slow down for 2 minutes, and repeat.</p>
Gradually Increase Pace<p>A faster walking pace is associated with a lower risk of <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/copd" target="_blank">chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)</a> and respiratory diseases, according to a <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30303933/" target="_blank">2019 study</a>.</p><p>Still, it's best not to go from a stroll to an Olympic-worthy power walk in a day. Instead, increase your pace gradually to prevent injury.</p><p>"Start by walking at a brisk pace for about 10 minutes per day, 3 to 5 days per week," Rue says. "Once you've done this for a few weeks, increase your time by 5 to 10 minutes per day until you get to 30 minutes."</p>
Add Stairs<p>You've likely heard that taking the stairs instead of an elevator is a way to add more movement into your daily routine. It's also a way to step up your walking. Stair climbing has been shown to <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2211335519301123?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">decrease the risk of mortality</a> and can easily add a bit more challenge to your walk.</p><p>If you don't have stairs in your home, you can often find them outside a local municipal building, train station, or at a high school stadium.</p>
Is Your Walk a True Cardio Workout?<p>Not all walks are equal. A walk that's too leisurely may not provide enough burn to qualify as cardio. To see if you're getting a good workout, try to <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/how-to-check-heart-rate" target="_blank">measure your heart rate</a> using a monitor.</p><p>"A target goal for a good walking workout heart rate is about 50 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate," Rue says, adding that maximum heart rate is <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/fitness-exercise/fat-burning-heart-rate" target="_blank">typically calculated</a> by 220 beats per minute minus your age.</p><p>You can also monitor how easily you can carry on a conversation while you walk to gauge your heart rate.</p><p>"If you can walk and carry on a normal conversation, that's probably a lower intensity walk," says Rue. "If you are slightly breathless but can still have a conversation, that's probably a moderate workout. If you are out of breath and can't talk normally, that's a vigorous workout."</p>
Takeaway<p>By shaking up your routine, you can add excitement to your workout and reap even more rewards than a basic walk provides. Increasing the pace and intensity of a workout will make it more effective.</p><p>Simply pick your favorite variation to add some spice to your next walk.</p>
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