In the wake of the deadly tsunami that hit Japan in 2011 and severely damaged a nuclear reactor, Japanese officials say the levels of radiation are safe for everyone outside the reactor area itself. But as radioactive water from the plant nears the West Coast of North America -- the water is expected to hit in 2014 -- can we be sure it's safe?
The nuclear reactor continues to leak radioactive water due to poor management, while Japanese subcontractors at the plant have admitted they intentionally under-reported radiation and that dozens of farms around Fukushima that were initially deemed safe by the government actually had unsafe levels of radioactive cesium.
Fukushima locals also claim they're seeing cancer at higher rates and the Japanese government is covering up the scale of the problem.
So what do independent estimates say? The first measures come from the U.S. government. The FDA has stepped up its monitoring of radiation in seafood due to the Fukushima incident.
“Since the time FDA began its targeted testing of Japanese imports following the Fukushima incident, FDA has only found one sample of food -- a ginger powder -- that contained detectable levels of cesium, but those levels were far below FDA’s [safety levels] and posed no public health concern,” FDA spokeswoman Theresa Eisenman told FoxNews.com.
“We are actively watching for information that could implicate U.S. food and are always ready to take further action,” she said.
Meanwhile, the EPA keeps track of radiation within U.S. borders and presents the data online in nearly real time through RadNet, a nationwide system of monitors.
“RadNet sample analyses and monitoring results of precipitation, drinking water, and milk provide baseline data on background levels of radiation,” the EPA said in a statement to FoxNews.com.
The agency does not monitor radiation levels at sea, however, and in a statement pointed to the International Atomic Energy Agency, which relies on Japanese government data.
Independent estimates confirm that radiated particles at sea are relatively low. One measurement comes from researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
“I stood on a ship two miles from the Fukushima reactors in June 2011 and as recently as May 2013, and it was safe to be there (I carry radiation detectors with me),” Ken Buesseler a Senior Scientist at the WHOI, has reported. He also tested radioactivity in the water.
“Although radioactive isotopes in the samples and on the ship were measurable back in our lab, it was low enough to be safe to handle samples without any precautions,” he has said.
In Japan, more than 100 volunteer-run radioactivity testing sites have also started up, which would likely notice a sharp uptick in radioactivity.
Doug Dasher, who studies radioecology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said it remains possible that there will be minor effects for people on the U.S. West Coast, despite the low test results.
“No acute effects resulting in mortality or damage to organs … would be expected,” he told FoxNews.com. But he added that more subtle effects might occur.
“Longer term chronic effects, cancer or genetic effects… odds are statistically low, if the concentrations in the models remain within the projections, cannot be said to be zero.”
Additional leakage from Fukushima could increase the odds, he said.
“The estimates [of radiation] vary substantially and do not, at least so far, account for the continued leakage from the Fukushima site to the marine environment,” he said.
Scientists also warn that if an another earthquake or other natural disaster occurs while the Fukushima nuclear plant is still being decommissioned, that could have catastrophic consequences. To help the decommissioning happen smoothly, the U.S. government has supported the cleanup by sending 34 experts and over 17,000 pounds of equipment to Japan.
In the end, some experts say, Japanese near the Fukushima reactor have reason to worry -- a World Health Organization report found that the likelihood of a Japanese infant living near Fukushima getting thyroid cancer over her lifetime is expected to increase from the standard 0.75 percent to 1.25 percent -- but Americans do not.
“There should be no concern among Americans, of any age or location,” Gilbert Ross, executive director of the American Council on Science and Health, told FoxNews.com.
“If you want to list health concerns that Americans should worry about, start with the real killers -- drunk driving and smoking,” Ross said.
“If you went down a list of things people really should worry about, you would never even get to a concern about radiation leakage from Fukushima.”
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