After a couple of months of almost mainlining the news on the Fukushima nuclear crisis, I turned off. I made a conscious choice to stop reading the updates in details and to not get paranoid or worried; there’s only so much energy you can expend before you become exhausted. At that point, you have to decide whether to commit to the issue or not- and I simply wasn’t worried enough about the impact of radiation on my own health to remain constantly abreast of the daily developments.
It was the battle over the purported health risks of radiation that reawoke me to the issue. In one camp there’s the unperturbed, who believe that current food checks are sufficient, that atmospheric rates are low, and that the situation is now under control. The more extreme members of this group stray, at times, dangerously close to being apologists for the government, who have been less than transparent in their handling of information and their response to the crisis. (Just one example that comes to mind is their failure to use SPEEDI or to inform the public of wind forecasts immediately after the crisis began.)
On the other side there’s the doubters. The milder among them are merely cynical, and the extreme verge on paranoia, refusing to believe any statistics released by the government or TEPCO, or even any optimistic forecast. The blog post I translated that said the bodies of 4300 TEPCO workers were being concealed would almost definitely fit into that group.
For the formers- let’s call them The Unperturbed- any attempt to publicise high levels of radioactivity in food is irrational, unnecessary hyperbole that will damage farmers’ livelihoods. The phrase used very commonly in the Japanese press is “風評被害 (fuhyou-higai)”, or damaging rumours.
This phrase sends the other camp- let’s call them The Doubters- frothing at the mouth. After beef with levels of radioactive cesium above the government’s safe limit was sold across the nation, radioactive particles thought to have reached Hokkaido, most of it floating somewhere in the Pacific, 45% of children in Fukushima with cesium in their thyroid glands, a rice crop recently found to exceed safety standards… they find it obscene that someone can dismiss their fears, or even figures, as “rumours”.
Yet to The Unperturbed, food that is on sale is safe, whether it is from Fukushima, Iwate, Miyagi, etc. According to them, the masses of food that has been left unsold or thrown away because of these “rumours” is obscene- and unnecessary.
I would argue that the numerous visible holes in the safety checks, which have allowed contaminated food to go on sale, make people wary. It is impossible to check all the food on sale: simply waving a Geiger counter over food doesn’t cut it. It needs to be dehydrated and pulverised before being analysed, meaning that the process is quite laborious.
Moreover, in this case, is it better to safe than sorry? The Doubters say so. Time Out Tokyo had an interesting article about a group of mothers in Yokohama who are fighting to take food produced in the disaster areas off school menus. One, Toshiko Yasuda, attacked the idea that supporting the farmers was more important than children’s health:
“‘I think it’s an awful national habit that we Japanese have. During the war, Japanese people would willingly sacrifice themselves if it was beneficial for the country. That was the norm, the virtue. That mentality lives on. The government has passed the buck to the people of Japan, saying, “Please eat the Fukushima vegetables. Poor Fukushima people. They need your help.” Yes, of course we have to help the industries and economy of Fukushima, but is it okay for our children to eat that produce, get sick and die young? Should we let them develop cancer? That’s a completely different argument.’ “
That said- what if the Doubters saw food being tested right in front of their eyes- would they still refuse to eat it? I’d guess no. Any amount of cesium is unacceptable to them, which is perhaps too extreme a stance. Bananas, after all, are radioactive. So is our natural environment. Getting on an airplane, getting an x-ray, living near rocks that contain radon.
Should we trust government safety levels? Despite Chernobyl, there’s no scientific precedent. Measuring was both more difficult and more lax in 1986; few clear causal relationships have been drawn up between “X amount of becquerels/kg = __% chance of cancer in later life”. It could be argued that it’s not worth taking any risks -but don’t we do that every day, living in an environment already full of fumes, pesticides, plastics… and dare I say it… cigarettes?
Where do we draw the line? I haven’t made my mind up yet.