(That’s konbanwa, which means goodnight in a hello sort of sense.)
(…That is…if you have Asian languages enabled.)
I thought it might be a good idea to make at least a passing reference to what’s making headlines all over right now. All the American news sources seem to be in a desperate panic over the fact that there is now (predictably) radiation in the sea water off the coast of Fukushima. In fact, the Fukushima plant is now actively, purposely draining its water directly into the ocean in order to clear the plant of some of the radiation, in addition to the water that had been leaking already. The water that had already been leaking was found to have been escaping from a concrete pit in the basement of the plant that had gotten cracked in the earthquake. This pit was apparently not one which normally kept lots of water, but seeing as the plant was hit by a twenty-five foot wave of water and then, subsequently, was intentionally deluged in as much water as feasible from every open vent in the building, it’s quite reasonable that the pit would get pretty well filled, so there’s a lot of water that’s been draining into the ocean. The water in the pit has a far, far higher concentration of radiation than that which is being intentionally drained, so it’s been the focus of most of the panicked headlines. That said, since they first detected radioactive materials were leaking last week, the levels in sea water tested near the plants have dropped to about one-sixteenth of the highs reached on Wednesday.
The other good news is that they’ve now found which pit was leaking and intend to pour loads and loads of concrete in to hopefully seal it up. The other-other good news is that this is still nothing to be overly panicked about. Water will dilute the radiation pretty well and since the Pacific ocean is fairly large as far as oceans go (not nearly as big as the subterranean ocean on Jupiter’s moon Europa, of course, but still fairly sizable as far as water oceans go), this radiation will get good and diluted. The main worry people are having right now is if fish caught off the coast will be radioactive, but seeing as the people living in the area have all been evacuated and those who’ve stayed are really in no position to fish, this isn’t such an immediate problem. It is likely that in the future, when fishing resumes, this will still not be a major issue. Locals who manage to catch and eat radioactive fish on a regular basis (an unlikely event) should be far more concerned about any radioactivity in the land, though I think it will be quite a while until they are allowed to return home. Those at a distance will likely have little contact with radioactive fish, and chance encounters (i.e. meals), much like sea water, dilute the risks significantly. Basically, single doses of radioactivity tend to be far less problematic, the same way getting a single x-ray here or there will not give you cancer. The high levels found in a few fish (and some spinach and milk) south of the Fukushima plant are still below legal limits, and below health risk limits for anyone who is not subsisting entirely on fish, including breakfast, lunch, dinner, and fish smoothies in between.
Radiation is much like many of the bad things that inspired the Aristotelian adage “all things in moderation”. Some modern examples of these things might include the following:
- Water – Some is good, lots will kill you and not just in the tsunami sense – drinking up to two gallons of water will dilute your blood enough to kill you.
- Alcohol – We use alcohol to kill things in clinical settings. I’m not sure why people view it as relatively innocuous. Large amounts will kill you. Smaller amounts will make you significantly more likely to kill someone else.
- Fatty foods – Several studies suggest that the American diet, high in fat as it is, contributes significantly to higher cancer rates.
- Hot dogs – The Cancer Prevention Coalition recommends against eating more than twelve hot dogs per month because of their high associated risk of cancer. If you ask who eats that many hot dogs per month (think summer barbecues), I will counter with “who drinks fish smoothies?” The answer is not very many people. But there are some.
- Sitting – Sitting down for long periods of time is associated with a higher risk of cancer, regardless of subsequent exercise. This could be a result of associated acts, such as higher food intake or other unhealthy decisions, but the correlation is still there.
- Toilets – I won’t really get into this, but several studies have shown that the shape and size of the toilets we use may be causing colon cancer or, at the very least, other distasteful illnesses.
The point of all of this is that cancer risks and danger are everywhere. Right now the Japanese government is suggesting it might be helpful to not eat radioactive fish, particularly if you’re young enough to not have teeth – and they’re carefully monitoring everything – but they’re not recommending against fish, or water, or sitting, or hot dogs, or cigarettes (though that last might be for a different reason) because the risk still isn’t enough to be particularly worried about. While it’s probably not a bad idea to stay away from things that can kill you, in moderation most people should be perfectly fine.
If the threat of cancer from a radioactive fish here or there still worries anyone, I think this would be a good time to point out that nearly a third of all adults in Japan smoke on a regular basis (one of the highest rates in the developed world – although they get less lung cancer from it) and that secondhand smoke is a far more prevalent problem here than most places, since most public buildings allow smoking in at least some places indoors, including restaurants far and wide. I think there are other, more practical ways, the Japanese could work to reduce their risks at this point.
Anyway, I intended to also post a few short, sweet stories from this past week just to liven the mood that has been otherwise very (understandably) heavy.
The first is a story about a dog that’s making headlines all over here. She was spotted running around on a house that was floating more than a mile away from shore and was rescued by workers. Yesterday, her owner saw her on television and came to get her, and the two were reunited. The dog was hungry and a little lethargic (until her owner showed up), but should be fine.
The next story is about a fisherman on the island of Oshima who, upon hearing about the upcoming tsunami, immediately hopped onto his boat “Sunflower” and rode out to the sea. Oshima is a tiny island and he was worried that if no boats survived the trip, his island would be completely cut off from the mainland. Apparently, several other fishermen tried the same thing, but this man, Susumu Sugawara, was the only one to come through. He literally rode up and over the massive wave with his forty-two year old boat intact and has since been the only lifeline between Oshima and the mainland, using his boat to carry food and people nonstop. He asks for a donation of 300 yen, about $3.50, for gas, from those who can afford to pay it. He also notes that he’s a little embarrassed to be receiving so much attention.
In other news, baseball season has started back in the States (I think), which is the source of much excitement here in Japan. A student I had a few days ago told me he’d watched a live game just before his morning class, in order to take a break from the news with its unending panoramas of disaster wastelands and children bearing the unfair burdens of adults. We were discussing the value of sport to a culture, and he told me that watching baseball gave him time to relax and not to think and not to feel guilt over the pain in his country. It gave him time to be happy.
Many of my students react to the earthquake with vague awe at the sheer power, and the general sadness and weight that comes with loss of life, but most of them have been in otherwise high spirits. The other day I assigned a group class who were studying travel to make travel brochures for an unlikely vacation destination, where they had to describe sights and airfare and that sort of thing. One group made a brochure for the Fukushima power plants to see the radiation, but they said that the travel package would probably cost your life. I gave them points for accuracy and good grammar.