Sea Water and Sugar Stories


(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.


– Hayley


About xbound24

An American in Japan for a while.
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One Response to Sea Water and Sugar Stories

  1. Ron Boyd says:

    Hi H.
    You’ve the mind of a mathematical pragmatist awash with the love of your host country. That is a wonderfully refreshing. Yet radioactivity is a highly controversial international traveler. As a waste product, it is but another environmental stressor found in the heap of technology’s discarded luggage.

    Paracelsus, the father of toxicology, wrote: “Everything is poison, there is poison in everything. Only the dose makes a thing not a poison.” Were you a writer in the 1950’s, you may have found yourself lending perspective to the negative effects of DDT in a manner similar to your treatment of the Fukushima radiation leaks. The pesticide’s efficacy against carriers of yellow fever and malaria was nothing less than the gallant, earning chemist Paul Muller a Nobel Prize in Medicine. Still, the negative impact of its long term effects lead to a world wide ban some thirty-five years later.

    Nuclear power is a seductive option for a highly populated fossil fuel poor island like Japan. With that in mind, the effect of earthquakes on both nuclear reactors and waste storage facilities have long been a concern in their deployment. The theory of plate tectonics casts Southeast Asia as the most volatile area of the earth’s crust. Biogeographers have long noted the segregation of species along the Wallace Line, lending credence to this portrait of geological instability along this north-south axis.

    For those Japanese and their world neighbors who have warned of such imminent risks, comparing the Fukushima radiation leaks to statistics on cigarette use may not be an effective tranquilizer. Yes, both are man-made stressors, but an individual has the power to control their exposure to tobacco. This is not yet the case in the international politics of radiation. It is also important to note that illness and death are not always the direct result of pathogens, but come instead from multiple stresses placed on the homeostasis of the organism.

    If there was logic to the risks implicit in technology, perhaps we would address the 40,000 annual deaths resulting from car accidents in the United States. The micro-view is to regulate safety devices on vehicles, the macro approach might be to supplement those efforts by offering communities lower fatality mass transportation systems.

    Pasted below is a short essay I wrote concerning cancer rates and fall-out from atmospheric nuclear bomb tests. The information is only as good as the sources so opinions may vary of the statistical profile, but its something to consider when we as individuals are forced to endure the politics of energy, defense and civilized existence.

    Best ,
    Ron Boyd (a friend of your mother)

    Cancer and Atmospheric Bomb Tests
    The other morning a friend and I were discussing what seems to be an abnormal number of cancer deaths in our generation. I wondered aloud if they could be the result of all the atomic bomb tests 50 years ago, or if cancer was always present at its current rate but masked by failure of diagnosis in generations before the bomb. So this morning I did a little research. Not only did I find a wealth of grotesque human injustices perpetrated by the Atomic Energy Commission, but records of actual human tests conducted on unsuspecting participants exposed or injected with radiation. As for the effect of some 330 atmospheric bomb tests by the US (plus those of the USSR and China), here is what I found in a quick search:

    The European Union researched this and concluded in 2003:

    “The ECRR model predicts 61,600,000 deaths from cancer, 1,600,000 infant deaths and 1,900,000 foetal deaths. In addition, the ECRR predict a 10% loss of life quality integrated over all diseases and conditions in those who were exposed over the period of global weapons fallout.”

    There is even direct physical evidence that U.S. taxpayer-funded nuclear tests (mostly in the Pacific) killed Americans:

    Washington University officials stumbled upon 85,000 teeth not used in the study in a remote storage area. The school donated the teeth to the Radiation and Public Health Project (RPHP), a research group conducting its own study of Sr-90 in baby teeth, near U.S. nuclear reactors. Each tooth is enclosed in a small envelope attached to a card identifying the tooth donor.

    RPHP scientists recognized that these teeth could help answer the long-awaited question of fallout’s harm to the health of Americans. The tooth donors, now in their 40s and 50s, could be tracked at current addresses or through death records. And Sr-90 could still be measured in each tooth, as the chemical decays very slowly.

    Earlier this month, the first results of the RPHP health study were released in an article in the International Journal of Health Services. Baby teeth of St. Louis baby boomers who died of cancer by age 50 had more than double — 122 percent more — the Sr-90 concentration than did Boomers who are alive and healthy.

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