The radioactive effects of Fukushima.. in your fish

On March 11, 2011, an 8.9 magnitude earthquake shook Japan, triggering a 30 ft tsunami that struck Japan’s Pacific coast, leaving destruction in its wake. The tsunami destroyed a lot of the infrastructure along the Japanese coast.

The most notable damage from the tsunami affected the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. The subsequent nuclear meltdown resulted in the release of radiation that prompted a huge evacuation of the surrounding areas. It is now remembered as one of the worst nuclear disasters in history, along with Chernobyl. With most of the radioactivity spilling into the ocean, here lies the question: won’t all of that get into our food?

The answer is yes. In the wake of the disaster, countries such as South Korea and Japan have banned food imports such as fish from areas surrounding the Fukushima plant.

According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), on March 19, 2011, the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare confirmed the presence of radioactive iodine contamination in dairy, fresh produce, and infant formula products.

Japanese data analyses revealed that the food products measured from March 16-18, 2011, indicated the presence of radioactive iodine was five times the acceptable levels.

Though radioactive iodine has a short half-life of about 8 days and decays naturally within a matter of weeks, there is a risk to human health if radioactive iodine in food is absorbed into the human body.

US FDA

But, before you panic, just keep reading and you’ll know why you’ll be okay. Honestly, the residents who used to live in Fukushima have a lot more to worry than you.

There have been a few cases of radioactive traces found in food products outside of Japan. In 2018, researchers found Fukushima’s nuclear imprint in Californian wines. Researchers tested bottles of California rosé and cabernet sauvignon from 2009 onwards, and finding increased levels of radioactive particles in the wine produced after the Fukushima disaster. Research published in the journal PNAS also showed that fish from areas nearer to Fukushima had a higher risk of radioactive contamination. In 2016, salmon carrying traces of caesium 134 particles – the so-called fingerprint of the Fukushima – were found by researchers in the seas off Oregon.

But what do all these cases have in common?

The food is actually still safe to eat. The levels of radioactive material that you end up consuming are in fact extremely low. According to the Washington State Department of Health, studies show that no fish or shellfish off the Pacific coast have radioactive contamination that would pose a risk to people who eat them. They have conducted research and the results were far below levels that would threaten human health.

According to TIME, fisheries in the most affected regions remain closed. But even if someone were to eat fish with relatively high levels of radiation, the chances of consuming enough to cause any serious damage remain extremely low.

To put it in context, if you were to swim everyday for six hours a day in those waters for a year, that additional radiation from the addressed cesium from Japan… is 1000 times smaller than one dental x-ray.

Ken Buesseler, senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, on the radioactivity found in fish caught off the coast of Oregon

And you don’t have to worry so much about the radioactivity either (as scary as that sounds). The disaster added just a fraction of a percent to the radiation that’s already in the ocean, 99 percent of which is naturally occurring.

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