Sunday, March 27, 2011

Panic over water in Japan based on official lies or on official confusion?

There's quite a bit of panic in Japan (and elsewhere) about radioactive fallout. One of the fears is the effect on water, and in Japan there has been panic-buying of bottled water (See Tapped, a look at the dangers of bottled water for an excellent movie looking at the bottled water industry - while bottled water is generally a bad idea, as an expediency in an emergency it could be a good idea). I just watched a youtube video that purported to be a Japanese man who'd just received news that Tokyo was being evacuated, that Tokyo residents were warned to not drink the water, and he was in a panic over the impending death of the millions of residents in Tokyo. Unfortunately the video itself may be a hoax because it's an australian overdubbing his words over someone else's video and we don't know what the original video was truly about. On the other hand it's illustrative of what could happen as well as the motive behind the panic buying.

A NY Times article from Friday talks about conflicting advice given by Japanese officials: "whiplash of advisories on the safety of tap water in the face of tests showing the presence of radioactive iodine" and "warned Wednesday that infants should not consume tap water, only to rescind the advisory yesterday when radiation levels tested lower" and "initial warnings that infants under a year of age should not drink tap water was based on a government warning that tests detected 210 becquerels per liter of radioactive iodine-13. The Japanese standard for infants' exposure is not more than 100 becquerels per liter, while the tolerance for adults is 300 becquerels per liter". Another NY Times article talked of panic buying, and officials puzzling over the source of the contamination: "Despite the frequent rain in recent days, it was not entirely clear why the levels of iodine were so high, said a senior Western nuclear executive, noting that the prevailing breezes seemed to be pushing radiation out to sea." As well as "The 1986 accident at Chernobyl caused an epidemic of thyroid cancer — 6,000 cases so far — in people who were exposed as children. The culprit was milk produced by cows that had grazed on grass heavily carpeted by fallout. The epidemic could probably have been prevented if people in the region had been told not to drink milk and if they had been given potassium iodide."

Clearly a threat to the water supply is a critical thing. Humans need continual water intake to live, and rapidly die without water. Psychologically speaking it's a core survival threat making the panic reaction understandable.

Fortunately the Japanese eat a lot of seaweed which helps to protect against radioactive iodine. But that doesn't help against the other radioactive stuff escaping from the reactors.

Let's get back to the conflicting advice being given by Japanese officials and the panic reaction. There's a meme out there that officials are lying to us to keep panic minimized. Maybe it's true, maybe it isn't.

For example an AP news report says "Part of the nation's key radiation warning system was out of service as the U.S. braced for possible exposure to the fallout from a nuclear crisis in Japan. While no dangerous levels of radiation have reached American shores, the test of the monitoring network has spurred some lawmakers to question whether it can adequately safeguard the country against future disasters." The EPA "did not immediately say why the monitors were inoperable, but did not fix them until several days after low levels of radiation began drifting toward the mainland U.S". That the "EPA relies in part on trained volunteers to regularly change out air filters on the RadNet monitors and mail them to a federal lab in Alabama where the data gets a detailed analysis a few days later. Volunteers are also tasked with alerting EPA if something goes wrong with the machine."

Radiation monitoring equipment that happened to be "out of service" just when needed? This is fuel for the panic mongerers among us. That network was designed for the Cold War and meant in part to detect nuclear bomb tests. I'm wondering whether it had funding appropriate to keep it reliably operable especially given the long time since open air nuclear tests have been conducted. But people in panic might not have the wherewithal to ponder the different interpretations of this information, and instead just leap to the worst possible assumptions.

In the U.S. the fear is different than in Tokyo. Here, it's whether significant radioactive particles will make it through the jetstream and hit the west coast and beyond. Trace amounts have been detected as far as in Europe, but would significant amounts get here? This monitoring network would tell us if there's a problem, but this failure would feed the "they're lying to us to keep us from panicking" meme going around. But read the article and it's clear RadNet was not a high profile project and was run by volunteers, so is it reasonable to expect it RadNet to be a highly reliable source of information?

Panicky people don't always make good decisions. Especially when they're panicking over such a basic thing as water supply. I get that.

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