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Davis, California

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Column: Cosmic relevance

While browsing my Facebook mini-feed on a typical day, I stumbled upon an article titled, “Foods that will fight the Fukushima Radiation.” I asked myself, what radiation am I supposed to be fighting?

Clicking on the link, I was reminded of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant meltdown in Japan in 2011. But this was old news, wasn’t it? Unsure, I decided to investigate.

Apparently, the situation is ongoing.

As recently as Oct. 5, the New York Times reported that Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority openly scolded the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) in a public hearing for its failure in the cleanup process. This week alone, TEPCO announced that 114 gallons of contaminated water spilled from an overflowing tank of radioactive material. Unfortunately these mistakes aren’t uncommon, as “one of the biggest recent spills came in August, when TEPCO discovered that 80,000 gallons of water laced with radioactive strontium and cesium had leaked out of one of the huge tanks, with some reaching the Pacific,” according to the Times. The meltdown occurred two years ago, and containment is still an issue.

So should we panic?

Officially, our government says no. In the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) September 2013 update on the Fukushima radiation, they’ve announced, “To date, FDA has no evidence that radionuclides from the Fukushima incident are present in the U.S. food supply at levels that would pose a public health concern.”

But somehow, this doesn’t seem satisfying. Why isn’t our government worried?

For instance, South Korea is concerned. It has banned all fish imports from Japan’s northeastern coast due to the lack of information surrounding the radiation’s effects. Fox News reports that scientists already believe that the ocean has been exposed to hazardous material, from increasing levels of radioactive cesium found in deep water fish.

So if radiation is clearly in our ocean, should we be concerned?

Thankfully, many experts say there is no need to freak out. In an article by Alicia Chang for the Huffington Post, she writes that we eat radioactive food all the time. Low levels of naturally occurring radiation are a part of many popular foods, like bananas, red meat and beer.

“Once you understand that we swim in this low-level sea of radiation, then it’s just a numbers game,” said Mike Payne, of UC Davis’ Western Institute for Food Safety and Security, in an interview with Chang.

Also, agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and FDA frequently test radiation levels. OK, it is true that milk in California and Washington state were found to have traces of radioactive iodine. Indeed, Fukushima radiation has reached California soil. Luckily, “the amount detected was 5,000 times below the federal recommended limit for exposure.”

Chang also quotes Christine Bruhn, a food safety student of UC Davis, as saying that “people shouldn’t be afraid to continue eating dairy products, vegetables, fish and other nutritious foods.”

On one hand, it’s fantastic that there is little need to fear radiation poisoning. On the other hand, it’s disconcerting that radioactive waters are still finding their way into the ocean.

In this sense, it drives home the fact that national decisions truly affect the entire world. Nation states hold powerful and dangerous technologies; a radiated ocean would certainly cause catastrophe for all humanity. Thus, ongoing leakage is a global concern.

So what should we do now? How many more Chernobyls and Fukushimas should happen before the international community decides that an individual’s decision to play with fire isn’t worth burning us all?

In the words of documentary filmmaker Sam Hyde, “We are all world citizens.” It is up to us, as world citizens, to be aware of these universally important issues. We only have one planet, and we have to keep each other in check.

 

To prepare for other apocalyptic crises, you can contact DANIEL HERMAN at dsherman@ucdavis.edu.

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