The Physics Police

The Physics Police

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Fukushima Fish

In 2012, Robert Hotz of the Wall Street Journal published an article U.S. Tuna Has Fukushima Taint.

It reported on the findings of a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science titled Pacific bluefin tuna transport Fukushima-derived radionuclides from Japan to California.

The paper found tuna, caught off the coast of California, contained radioactive isotopes of cesium from the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Hotz made it clear that this 3% increase in radioactivity "posed no public-health hazard" to sushi lovers.

Nevertheless, the news frightened many people.

In response to this "anxiety and concern" caused by confusion about dosage, Nicholas Fisher (one of the authors of the paper) published a followup, Evaluation of radiation doses and associated risk from the Fukushima nuclear accident to marine biota and human consumers of seafood.
We showed that doses in all cases were dominated by the naturally occurring alpha-emitter 210Po and that Fukushima-derived doses were three to four orders of magnitude below 210Po-derived doses.
Let me try to put this in perspective. One serving of this "Hot Tuna" gives you 5% of the radiation dose you'd get from eating a banana. We are exposed to natural, background radiation all the time, ultraviolet light from the Sun, radionuclides in food, cosmic rays (to which our exposure is greatly increased by air travel), medical test such as X-rays, and especially, the Earth itself (all rocks contain radionuclides)! What matters is dosage.

Yes, I'm going to keep beating this dead horse, because of how important it is. The paper also calculates that a year's worth of tuna consumption (post-Fukushima) would be equivalent to one extra dental X-ray. Dosage matters.

On a flight from Los Angeles to New York, your body is hit by more cosmic rays than usual, because, way up in the sky, there's less of Earth's atmosphere above your head, to protect you. This extra exposure is equal to 8 years of (post-Fukushima) tuna consumption. Dosage matters.

All too often, in comments on news articles, I see users impudently screaming about how:
This is a pernicious and foolish myth. It's contrary to both scientific evidence, and common sense. Did I mention that dosage matters? Seriously, take off the tinfoil hat for a second. I have something important to tell you. Dosage matters!

Where does this moronic idea come from? The second paper presents a good guess:
Fears regarding environmental radioactivity, often a legacy of Cold War activities and distrust of governmental and scientific authorities, have resulted in perception of risks by the public that are not commensurate with actual risks.
Anyway, there are good reasons to avoid eating too much tuna. Any fish that eats other fish (shark, swordfish, tuna) contains relatively high levels of heavy metals, such as lead an mercury. The FDA advises pregnant women to avoid eating too much of these fish, because of a real danger these heavy metals pose to the health of their baby.

I find it offensive, even dangerous, to stir up fear of inconsequential radiation when there are real human health concerns to address, such as mercury.

It baffles me that a Californian can have the gall to complain about radioactive fish, considering:
While the earthquake killed more than 15,000 people, no deaths have been blamed on the nuclear disaster that followed. [Source]
How tremendously insulting must this seem to the family of someone who died in the earthquake? How outrageous and petty must this complaint seem, especially, to residents of Fukushima, who remain displaced from their homes in the exclusion zone?
... more than 100,000 people have had to evacuate towns surrounding the plant. [Source]
Californians need to have some damn perspectives before they complain about contaminated fish.

Ann Werner is one of the worst offenders I've seen. In her blog post titled Radioactive Bluefin Tuna Caught Off California Coast, she goes on about nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and bleeding, the effects of radiation poisoning. Obviously, this is done to scare her more credulous readers. She indicates the FDA's assurance that the food supply is safe, but claims "one has to question if this is true" like she's some kind of skeptic. She's no skeptic. She's a fool and self-righteous fear monger.

Like many similar anti-science articles, Werner focuses on this quote by Nicolas Fisher:
We found that absolutely every one of them had comparable concentrations of cesium...
Which is from the year-old Wall Street Journal article. She makes no mention of the recent paper by Fisher et al. I have great empathy for Fisher, who seems to be doing his best to inform, but his message seems to be falling on deaf ears, and his quote continues to be misappropriated.

This epidemic of misinformation is very upsetting. It's enough to make me wonder, why are liberals so readily accepting anti-science in the name of environmental protection? In addition to leftover Cold War paranoia, as I mentioned above, I think something insidious going on.

I think environmentalism has lost its way by disconnecting from science. I happen to be an environmentalist. I also happen to reject irrational fear of nuclear power, genetically modified food, vaccines, and the responsible use of pesticides. In order for environmentalism to work, the movement has to maintain credibility. This trend of anti-science is devastating to that credibility.

I've seen people accused being "sheeple" for their rational interpretation of facts. Those accusers are the true sheeple, but their message is a useful one. We environmentalists need to "wake up". We need to reject the naturalistic fallacy. We need to stop conflating unnatural with unhealthy. We need to recognize the importance of dosage. We need to let our opinions be informed by the science, instead of tedious, ignorant alarmists like Ann Werner.

You hear that, Ann?

That's the Physics Police, come knockin' at your door!

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