As nuclear whistleblowers go, Dr. Yuri Bandazhevsky, a pathologist and native of Belarus, is at the top of the list. He wasn’t murdered like union activist Karen Silkwood, who spilled the beans on faulty fuel rods and falsified inspection records at a Kerr-McGee plutonium production plant in Oklahoma, but he was arrested on bogus charges and sentenced to eight years in jail by a military court.
His arrest followed his protests of the government’s false reassurances that living on land highly contaminated from radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear explosion in 1986 was safe. He had issued a report that the government, under President Alexander Lukashenko, had failed to properly research health impacts from Chernobyl and had spent only six percent of funds available for research. Further, Bandazhevsky had refused demands to retract his own research that correlated concentrations of cesium-137 measured in vital body organs to pathologies that included irreversible heart damage, immune disorders, mutations, and fetus abnormalities. (An international effort led by anti-nuclear and human rights activists forced his release from prison after he served four years.)
“Hauling Dr. Bandazhevsky off to prison was a very important historical event because he was on to the key factor that can pull the rug out from the entire nuclear industry, if we’re ever allowed to get a free hearing,” said Dr. Steven Starr, Director of the Clinical Laboratory Science Program at the University of Missouri and a senior nuclear scientist with Physicians for Social Responsibility.
The ongoing out-of-control nuclear disaster in Japan gives Bandazhevsky’s work a timely urgency. Radiation releases into the atmosphere and the Pacific Ocean have continued non-stop since the triple meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in March 2011. Starr addressed the threat of cesium contamination at the Symposium on the Fukushima Disaster held in March at the New York Academy of Sciences, sponsored by the Helen Caldicott Foundation and Physicians for Social Responsibility.
Two million people in Belarus live on lands severely contaminated by cesium-137 from Chernobyl’s fallout. Studies showed that 14 years after the disaster, 45 to 47 percent of high school graduates had physical disorders, including gastrointestinal anomalies, weakened hearts, and cataracts; and 40 percent were diagnosed with chronic “blood disorders” and malfunctioning thyroids. Said Starr: “I am afraid that there are many Japanese people now living on lands equally contaminated with radioactive cesium. If Japanese children are allowed to routinely ingest foodstuffs contaminated with cesium-137, they will likely develop the same health problems that we now see in the children and teenagers of Belarus and Ukraine. Thus, it is very important that we recognize the danger posed to children by the routine ingestion of contaminated foodstuffs, where ever they might live.”
U.S. Cesium Allowance in Food: Highest in the World
In March, the Fukushima Fallout Awareness Network (FFNA) filed a petition with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to require testing for cesium 134/137 contamination in all foods, drugs, and dietary supplements and ban the sale of any item with more than 5 Bq/kg (Becquerels per kilogram). It calls for all tests showing cesium contamination to be recorded in a database and made available to the public. According to the petition: “Radioactive contamination in the food chain started with above ground testing in the 1950s, increased with Chernobyl, and is continuing to increase after Fukushima’s triple meltdown on 3/11, the largest nuclear catastrophe in history. The official food monitoring system in place has become inadequate to deal with the growing problem of radioactive food contamination and is also inaccessible to citizens.
“We are alarmed at the lack of testing currently in place to meet the present-and-growing threat of Cesium 134 and 137 contamination in our food supply. The damaged Fukushima units continue to leak 10 million Becquerels of Cesium 134 and 137 per hour into the environment with no sign of stopping.… Since Cesium 134 has a hazardous life of about 10-20 years and Cesium 137 has a hazardous life of about 300-600 years, the threat of contamination in our food and drug supply is a long-term issue that deserves immediate attention.”
The FDA’s cesium allowance in food is the highest in the world. At 1200 Bq/kg, it is 12 times higher than Japan’s current limit, which was lowered to 100 Bq/kg from 500 last year. (A Becquerel is a unit used to measure radioactivity.)
Further, the U.S. allowance is a non-binding guideline. “It’s not only way too high, but, because it isn’t binding, the FDA can act or not act at any level of cesium contamination. It’s like not having a standard at all,” said Cindy Folkers, Radiation and Health Specialist at Beyond Nuclear.
The 5 Bq/kg limit called for in the petition is “only a starting point,” Folkers said, emphasizing that no level of radiation exposure is safe. “But this is a good start to get a handle on what is contaminated, what isn’t and how we move forward.” The stipulated limit is based on Bandazhevsky’s studies that showed heart problems developing in children with body radiation levels of 10-12 Bq/kg per pound of body weight and irreversible damage to heart tissues and other vital organs with levels around 50 Bq/kg.
In her comments at the Fukushima Symposium, Folkers suggested that the International Commission on Radiation Protection (ICRP), which sets radiation protection standards adopted by national governments and has long been linked to collusion with the nuclear industry, is promoting a policy for public acceptance of contaminated food.
“It seems to be some sort of official policy to encourage people to accept an increasingly radioactive food supply,” she said, citing the following statement from an ICRP publication published shortly after the Fukushima disaster. Entitled “Application of the Commission’s Recommendations to the Protection of People Living in Long-Term Contaminated Areas after a Nuclear Accident or a Radiation Emergency,” it states: “There may be situations where a sustainable agricultural economy is not possible without placing contaminated food on the market. As such foods will be subject to market forces, this will necessitate an effective communication strategy to overcome the negative reactions from consumers outside the contaminated areas.”
Said Folkers: “Their plan consists not of informing the public what these contamination levels are so that we can decide what we will and won’t accept. It consists of convincing us that man-made radiation in small doses isn’t harmful.”
A report released in 2011 by the German Section of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) calls for a “drastic” reduction in the current cesium limits permitted in foods in Europe and Japan. The limits called for in the report are comparable to the limits in the FFNA’s petition to the FDA but creates separate limits for baby food and milk products (from the current 370 Becquerels down to 8 Becquerels) and for all other foodstuffs (from 600 Becquerels down to 16). As noted in the report: “The excessively high radiation protection limits in the European Union and Japan are due to the fact that EURATOM and the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP), which exert influence on the setting of maximum limits, are dominated by the nuclear industry and radiologists.”
Even if only 5 percent of currently permissible limits on radioactive contamination were consumed in food, Germany, for example, could expect at least 7,700 of its population to die each year from the effects of radiation. This does not take into account the secondary health consequences of chronic diseases of the thyroid and pancreas.
We Need Testing Now
ABluefin tuna caught off the California coast five months after the Fukushima meltdowns contained 10 times the background level of radioactive cesium, according to a study published a year after the meltdowns (“Is Fukushima Radiation Contaminating Tuna, Salmon and Herring On the West Coast of North America?,” Washington’s Blog/Global Research, 8/26/13). In August, examinations of herring showed all fish tested were hemorrhaging blood from an unknown illness (“Biologist: Pacific herring in Canada bleeding from eyeballs, faces, fins, tails,” EneNews.com, 8/19/13).
“People on the west coast should demand transparent sampling of fish,” said Arnie Gundersen in a recent broadcast from Fairewinds Associates (Fairewinds.org) which has been monitoring the Fukushima disaster since its outbreak. “There’s no state organization that’s sampling the fish, no government is sampling the fish and telling people what the numbers are.”
Dr. Janette Sherman, contributing editor to the English translation of the landmark study, “Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment” agrees.
“The biggest threat from the ongoing releases of radioactivity in Japan is contamination of the food supply, probably worldwide,” Sherman said. “We know the ocean flows northward along Alaska and down the coast of Canada and the United States. We need testing, we need to know what they’re finding, and we need to know now—not a year from year now. This isn’t rocket science.”
Folkers has noted that while some universities have conducted tests and a few private companies have paid to have their products tested (Eden and Vital Choice), government agencies, including the FDA, the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have severely curtailed testing programs since the Fukushima disaster. A 2012 report by the EPA’s Inspector General found 20 percent of agency radiation monitors were out of service at the time of the meltdowns and said monitoring was managed with “lower than required priority.”
“When the accident first happened, we were very disappointed in the official response from U.S. government, which seems to be very much about reassuring everyone there was no problem. There was no thorough discussion here of potential risk—and that hasn’t changed,” said Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch.
“The Fukushima Fallout Awareness Network is raising the right issues—it opens up other questions about our standards for how much radiation is allowable for foods—accidents aren’t the only way that radiation enters the environment and food uptake is hugely important,” Lovera said. “Fukushima has brought this into stark relief because it was an accident, but this is a problem all the time and there seems to be a concerted effort across every part of the government to dismiss it.”
Joseph Mangano, executive director of Radiation and Public Health Project, said: “In this country we have 100 reactors emitting this exact same cocktail of radioactive chemicals routinely on an every day basis into the air and water and thus the food chain and thus the body. These levels are lower that what came from Fuku- shima. However, they are released over a much longer period of time—the first reactors date back to the 1940s and 1950s—so cumulatively we are producing more than Chernobyl and Fukushima combined and thus are putting everyone at risk for cancer and other diseases.”
John Raymond is a freelance writer based in New York City.