Fukushima mothers measure radiation levels in food, water and soil

IWAKI —

At a laboratory an hour’s drive from the wrecked Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, a woman with a white mask over her mouth presses bright red strawberries into a pot, ready to be measured for radiation contamination.

Six years after a massive earthquake off the coast of Japan triggered meltdowns at three of Fukushima’s reactors, local mothers with no scientific background staff a laboratory that keeps track of radiation levels in food, water and soil.

As some women divide the samples between different bowls and handmade paper containers, others are logging onto computers to keep an eye on data - findings that will be published for the public to access.

The women on duty, wearing pastel-colored overalls, are paid a small salary to come in for a few hours each day, leaving them free to care for their children after school.

“In universities, data is handled by qualified students, who have taken exams qualifying them to measure radiation. Here, it’s done by mothers working part-time. It’s a crazy situation,” laughed Kaori Suzuki, director of Tarachine, the non-profit organisation that houses the mothers’ radiation lab.

“If a university professor saw this I think they would be completely shocked by what they see.”

Tarachine was set up 60 km down the coast from the Fukushima plant, in the city of Iwaki. After the magnitude 9 quake struck on March 11, 2011, triggering a tsunami, authorities declared a no-go zone around the plant.

Iwaki lay outside its 30 km radius, with lower radiation levels compared to the rest of Fukushima Prefecture.

But with public announcements advising locals to stay indoors in the aftermath of the nuclear calamity, the “invisible enemy” of radiation has continued to worry the mothers working at the lab.

“As ordinary citizens we had no knowledge about radiation at all. All we knew was that it is frightening,” said Suzuki.

“We can’t see, smell or feel radiation levels. Given this invisibility, it was extremely difficult for us. How do we fight it? The only way is to measure it.”

To supplement readings by the Japanese government and Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) that manages the nuclear plant, Tarachine publishes its own findings every month.

With donations from the public that helped them buy equipment designed to measure food contamination, the mothers measure radioactive isotopes caesium 134 and 137, and collect data on gamma radiation, strontium 90 and tritium, all of which were released during the Fukushima disaster.

Strontium-90 gravitates toward the bones when absorbed by breathing it, drinking it in water, or eating it in food. It can remain for years, potentially causing bone cancer or leukemia.

Tritium goes directly into the soft tissues and organs of the human body. Although it is less harmful to humans who are exposed to small amounts of tritium every day, it could still be a hazard for children, scientists say.

The mothers say other parents trust the lab’s radioactivity readings in local food more than those from the government.

“This issue is part of everyday life for these mothers, so they have the capability to spot certain trends and various problems rather than just accumulating expert knowledge,” said Suzuki.

To handle potentially dangerous materials, the mothers have to study for exams related to radiation and organic chemistry.

“At the beginning I was just completely clueless. It gave me so much of a headache, it was a completely different world to me!” said Fumiko Funemoto, a mother of two, who measures strontium 90 at the lab. “But you start to get the hang of it as you’re in this environment every day.”

As the lab only accepts items for testing from outside the exclusion zone, most results show comparatively low radiation levels.

But Suzuki says this is an important process and is especially reassuring to the parents of young children. The women also measure radiation levels in sand from the beach, which has been out of bounds to their children.

“If the base is zero becquerels (unit of radiation), and there is, say, 15 or 16 becquerels of caesium, that’s still higher than zero. That means there is slightly more risk,” Suzuki said.

“There are also times when you’re like, ‘Oh, I thought levels were going to be high there – but it’s actually ok’. The importance lies in knowing what’s accurate, whether it’s high or low ... unless you know the levels, you can’t implement the appropriate measures.”

Since official screenings began following the nuclear accident, 174 children in Fukushima prefecture have been diagnosed with - or are suspected of having - thyroid cancer, according to figures from Fukushima’s local government.

Despite the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reporting in 2015 that an increase in thyroid cancer is unlikely, the mothers insist there is value in their work.

The first pictures from inside the nuclear plant were released by TEPCO in January, announcing it may have found nuclear fuel debris below the damaged No. 2 reactor - one of three affected by the 2011 disaster.

“In general, the issue of nuclear power is not really talked about much these days. It was talked about after the accident for about a year or so, but today, conversations mentioning words like ‘radiation’ don’t happen anymore,” Funemoto said.

“But I think the reality is different. The radiation isn’t going to go away. That’s why I’m doing this. So many places are still damaged. This idea that it’s safe and that we shouldn’t be anxious doesn’t really add up.”

Ai Kimura, another mother agrees. “My parents think I’m a bit paranoid. They keep saying, ‘it’s okay isn’t it?’” she said.

“But what if there’s a chance that in 10 or 20 years time, my own child gets thyroid cancer? And I could have done my bit to minimise the risks. My children are mine and I want to do whatever I can to protect them.” 

(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2017.

  • 11

    katsu78

    Awesome. Instead of wallowing in fear of the unknown as an excuse to make a fuss, these women are doing something to add to our knowledge of the world. Total models for how we should be dealing with problems in this day and age.

    “In universities, data is handled by qualified students, who have taken exams qualifying them to measure radiation. Here, it’s done by mothers working part-time. It’s a crazy situation,” laughed Kaori Suzuki, director of Tarachine, the non-profit organisation that houses the mothers’ radiation lab.

    I am no nuclear expert myself, but just from what I've seen of university student assistants, I'm skeptical that students are automatically any more qualified than these mothers, certainly not simply because they've taken an exam. I would want these women to have access to a professor in a related field when they have questions about how to interpret their data (like any grad student would) and I'd want them to have good training in how to properly calibrate and operate their equipment. Otherwise, I see no reason not to trust their numbers.

  • -1

    smithinjapan

    Somebody needs to, since the powers that be won't.

  • 1

    Aly Rustom

    Very good on these moms being proactive.

    At the beginning I was just completely clueless. It gave me so much of a headache, it was a completely different world to me!” said Fumiko Funemoto, a mother of two, who measures strontium 90 at the lab. “But you start to get the hang of it as you’re in this environment every day.”

    As with any job Fumiko. You learn as you go. Nothing beats on the job training and no one comes into a new job knowing everything. Keep going and good luck.

    Somebody needs to, since the powers that be won't.

    yep.

    Strontium-90 gravitates toward the bones when absorbed by breathing it, drinking it in water, or eating it in food. It can remain for years, potentially causing bone cancer or leukemia.

    If I'm not mistaken it also causes sickle cell anemia.

    Here is a list of diseases associated with radiation

    •Cancers of the bile ducts, bone, brain, breast, colon, esophagus, gall bladder, liver (primary site, but not if cirrhosis or hepatitis B is indicated), lung (including bronchiolo-alveolar cancer), pancreas, pharynx, ovary, salivary gland, small intestine, stomach, thyroid, urinary tract (kidney/renal, pelvis, urinary bladder, and urethra) •Leukemia (except chronic lymphocytic leukemia) •Lymphomas (except Hodgkin’s disease) •Multiple myeloma (cancer of plasma cells) •All cancers •Non-malignant thyroid nodular disease •Parathyroid adenoma •Posterior subcapsular cataracts •Tumors of the brain and central nervous system

    https://www.publichealth.va.gov/exposures/radiation/diseases.asp

  • 2

    marcelito

    Nothing but respect to these women.

  • 2

    bruinfan

    Somebody is doing what should have been done more in the past 6 years.

  • 3

    Disillusioned

    As the lab only accepts items for testing from outside the exclusion zone, most results show comparatively low radiation levels.

    The key word in this statement is, most. What about the radiation levels in those that are not part of most?

    I do admire these residents for taking matters into their own hands. However, it is shameful that they cannot trust the government sponsored organizations to give correct data.

  • -1

    Aly Rustom

    Disillusioned- excellent point

  • 0

    kurisupisu

    'The mothers say other parents trust the lab’s radioactivity readings in local food more than those from the government.'

    And that says it all! All well done to those mothers!

  • -1

    Tessa

    I don't get it. Isn't this the government's job?

  • 1

    nfijapan

    I don't get it. Isn't this the government's job? with the rampant manipulation of data by government bodies, mislabeling scandals etc would you trust your childs life over that of a corrupt politician!?

  • 1

    as_the_crow_flies

    I'd be interested to see some comparative readings from the government and this group. That would be very informative. If they are similar great, and if they are different, good, too, because at least there is a scientific basis for action.

    the “invisible enemy” of radiation has continued to worry the mothers. All we knew was that it is frightening,” said Suzuki. This is an important process and is especially reassuring to the parents of young children. This idea that it’s safe and that we shouldn’t be anxious doesn’t really add up. “My parents think I’m a bit paranoid."

    The language of articles like this always frame the issue as if the problem is worry, rather than radiation levels. It's a way of framing the discussion to insinuate that anyone who states there is a health risk is emoting. Really annoying. So all power to the mothers and those who supported them to get this lab up and running to reframe the debate in terms of getting reliable scientific data about radiation levels. Knowledge is power. And much more analysis should be going on about why there is so much scepticism of the reliability of government data. For example, as stated above, by comparing.

    Oh, and hello Zichi, if you're out there! Good to see a post from you. You've been missed!

  • 3

    zichi

    Oh, and hello Zichi, if you're out there! Good to see a post from you. You've been missed!

    Thank you.

    Given the history of the government dealing with the nuclear disaster the mistrust is understandable. Until the disaster is resolved in some 100+ years these mistrusts are likely to continue. Some areas within the exclusion zone have radiation reading of 10 micro sieverts per hour. I remain of the opinion the exclusion zones should remain until the day when the disaster is finally over.

    The government had more than 50 years to educate the public over the dangers of radiation but the whole of the nuclear energy base failed by believing a nuclear disaster in Japan was never possible and therefore not much to be concerned about.

  • -1

    kurisupisu

    And it would be bad enough if the only contamination were only in Fukushima but it isn't! The 'move and burn' policy has also meant that vast amounts of radioactive garbage has been incinerated in Osaka, thousands of tonnes dumped in Shiga and radioactive beef consumed in Shikoku. All prefectures should perform regular testing of products and goods entering from outside prefectures. If only a small percentage were tested (as these mothers are doing) it would go some way to educating all of us as to what is and what is not safe.

  • 4

    Educator60

    "The mothers say other parents trust the lab’s radioactivity readings in local food more than those from the government."

    And what this article doesn't tell us is has this group actually found any results that differ from the government's? The answer to that would seem to be an important point to include.

  • 2

    Dom Palmer

    However, it is shameful that they cannot trust the government sponsored organizations to give correct data.

    I don't see where they claim any of their data differs from the data from the government or from TEPCO. You would think if there was a difference they would make a big deal about it. Yet no mention of any difference is made.

  • -1

    badsey3

    http://www.iwakisokuteishitu.com/pdf/e-monthly_data.pdf

    As stated in the article they publish their data online. People are making claims here with not even looking at their data. =That is highy unscientific and disingenuous.

    I would like to make the claim that (non-pregnant) older people are much better suited around radiation than younger people (cells divide slower in older people).

  • 1

    Patricia Yarrow

    Pathetic. Where is JA? MIA. Now these lone women are doing their best instead. The rest of us have to fend for ourselves. I never buy anything from Fukushima and at this point probably never will. Meanwhile, Olympics full steam ahead while thousands languish in temporary housing shacks. Pathetic, Japan, really.

  • 0

    CoconutE3

    Thank you mothers for pursuing the truth backed by data.

  • -1

    Fred Wallace

    But but, the Olympics...

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