Monthly Archives: July 2012

Nuclear Fishin?

by Peggy Olive

The July 19, 2012 issue of Georgia Straight featured a full-page cover graphic showing a cartoon of three-eyed mutant fish cleverly entitled, Nuclear Fishin’. According to the article, high radiation levels in some Pacific Ocean fish have created concern among doctors at B.C. universities. Should we be worried about the health effects of consuming fish from Japan or fish that migrate here from Japan?

Sixteen months after the Fukushima nuclear accident in March 2011, the average level of radioactive cesium in fish from Japan had risen from 5 becquerels per kilogram to 65 Bq/kg. We are told that Japan’s official limit for radioactive cesium in food is 100 Bq/kg. Radioactivity in about 10% of the fish species, some exported to Canada this spring, may have exceeded this limit.

The cesium action level is the level above which food is no longer considered safe for human consumption so that action must be taken to prevent consumption. This level is ten times higher in Canada and elsewhere than in Japan. Why the difference?

According to Yomiuri Online (Dec. 25, 2011), action levels were recently set much lower in Japan in order to ensure the public’s safety and provide reassurance. Do you feel reassured to know that fish considered safe to eat last year is now considered contaminated? This article also goes on to say that the planned tightening of the limits is puzzling local government officials who are charged with monitoring radioactive cesium in food.

There is a good reason behind the choice of 1000 Bq/kg cesium as the action level for our food set by Health Canada and most other international advisory and national regulatory bodies. The cesium action level of 1000 Bq/kg in foodstuffs translates, with a few reasonable assumptions, to a dose to a person of about 5 milli-Sieverts per year. There is international consensus that exposure to 5 mSv in a year is acceptable because we already receive a natural background dose of ionizing radiation of similar magnitude and because no actions have been recommended for avoiding exposure from other natural sources at doses of 5 mSv or less. Radiation workers have an exposure limit of 20 mSv per year, and medical diagnostic procedures like CT scans can produce exposures in excess of 10 mSv.

What can we expect from exposure to 5 mSv? There are recognized limitations in trying to predict health effects from chronic radiation exposures below about 50 mSv (Brenner et al.,Proc. Nat’l. Acad. Sci, 2003). However, acceptable estimates can be made by extrapolating information on cancer risks observed after higher doses. If a population of 10,000 individuals receives 5 mSv, this would be expected to result in an additional two cancer deaths on top of a background of about 2000 cancer deaths in that population. Should we worry if we consume fish that contains 65 Bq/kg cesium radiation? Based on the above numbers, we could expect perhaps one additional cancer in 100,000 people who consume this fish. In my view, the protection afforded by avoiding food with more than1000 Bq/kg cesium is adequate.

Recently, small but measurable levels of radioactivity were found in endangered bluefin tuna that migrated from Japan to the California coast last summer (Madigan et al., Proc. Nat’l Acad. Sci. 2012). The World Health Organization had previously reported that there was no reason for concern about seafood safety outside of Japan. Even though levels of radioactive cesium in the California tuna were 200 times below our action level, the presence of even trace amounts of radioactivity still stimulated concern about whether the tuna was safe to consume. Increasing the risk of developing a radiation-induced cancer by 5% would require eating over 40 tons of this tuna!

In spite of the lack of health concerns with the current action levels in place, fear of eating radioactive fish is widespread and disproportionate to risk. An article in Forbes quotes one of the PNAS study’s coauthors as saying, “My first thought was this will do more for the conservation of this endangered animal (bluefin tuna) than nearly anything else could.” I hope he’s right because this would be the small silver lining in a radioactive cloud.

Global crisis – the view from Naramata

by Stan Hirst

Naramata Centre – a green, leafy place on the eastern shore of Okanagan Lake, British Columbia. For more than 60 years it has been a haven for learning, spiritual nurture and renewal. Over the course of a July week, with the outdoor temperature easily leaping over 30oC, a group of us sought out a quiet, shady spot and gathered in a circle to have a conversation about the world and our place in it. We were mainly elders hailing from B.C. and Alberta, some from Saskatchewan and Ontario and one all the way from California.

Earlier in the day a small group of dedicated organizers had spoken to us, sung to us and exhorted us to take on the task of healing our afflicted planet. They regaled us with images and headlines of global climate change, vanishing species and troubled times. In grand biblical fashion they marched us around a hall where 12 gates had been set up, these made not from ancient stone but from board and paper on which we could scribble our concerns, thoughts and intentions. The gates were labelled Education, Politics, Alternative Economy, Waste, Energy, Neighbourhood, Earthly Kinship, Travel, Spirituality, Food, Water and Stuff.

And then we were sent off to form the conversation circle to express our own views and thoughts on the global crisis. No debates, no critiques, no defences needed against opposing views. We could say whatever we wanted. The outflowing comments were every bit as diverse as the underlying issues and concerns, but gradually some patterns started to emerge. With a little sifting, grouping and clarification we started coming up with some core thoughts and concerns which I share here.

Our view of the global scene:

–  it’s not a black and white world, and we often seem paralyzed by the complexity of the gray distinctions;

–  what’s happening in our familiar little piece of the globe keeps us from seeing the big picture clearly;

–  sometimes what’s happening nationally and globally is so big it paralyzes us.

The global crisis is leading to personal conflict:

–  growing awareness of the issues produces a sense of inner conflict;

–  we feel conflicted by our lifestyles and the footprint of our well-intentioned activities, e.g. the carbon footprint of travel to reach transforming places;

–  and yet, inner conflict can be good when it leads to growth and action;

–  we will have to be willing to risk being in conflict about things that matter deeply to us.

And yet:

–  it takes courage to be distressed;

–  there is spirituality in all peoples and in Creation.

Awareness:

–  we are developing an encouraging level of consciousness;

–  when the knowing/awareness moves from our heads to our hearts, it transforms us;

–  we benefit from stopping and witnessing ourselves.

We noted that:

–  change is inevitable;

–  little things make a difference (one starling in a murmuration?);

–  we live in a society that encourages polarization of views and attitudes;

–  we tend to hold individual positions rather than search for common interests.

We enquired amongst ourselves as to what skills would be good in dealing with the situation?

–  the skill to understand how the issue affects all parties;

–  the skill to develop consensus (getting to that place where everyone involved can say, “I can live with that”);

–  the skill to move the discussion from something based on individual position to one of common interest;

–  the skill to deepen our spiritual practices

–  the skill to understand what it means that everything is connected (a gentle spider-web?)

–  the skill to hold an awareness of hope, energy, and spirit.

There was nothing particularly unique about our conversation under the green canopies of Naramata this past summer day. Thousands of discussions and conversations just like it go on every day across the land. But that’s the point. If more and more elders sit and talk the situation over with intention and spirit, then more and more will contribute to the great pool of realization as to where we are, where we’re going, and what we need to do personally to move to something better.

[with thanks to Tim Scorer for keeping the notes on which this report is based]