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Feature Stories

Japan’s Nuclear Affect on Long Beach

From Issue: Volume XIX - Number 6
1/1/1900


Kirt Ramirez

How much nuclear dust, if any, did Long Beach residents breathe in over the past days?

The heavy metal aspect of the nuclear fallout that began reaching Southern California Friday, March 18, was largely ignored by the media and nuclear experts. They focused on the radiation aspect and how levels were “within background.” But they did not focus on the actual dust.

An analogy would be there is a small amount of metal dust blowing around in the wind and the nuclear experts saying, “It’s okay, it’s not highly radioactive.”

The media and experts told the public not to panic and concluded radiation levels were safe. The South Coast Air Quality Management District provided:

“In regard to radiation levels resulting from the nuclear plant disasters in Japan, as of 10 a.m. Monday, March 21, radiation levels measured in the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area have not been higher than the typical background levels.”

High radiation levels were not expected, since Japan is 5,000 miles away and the dust would be diluted by the time it arrived here and any low amount of radiation from the dust would blend into the background.

Some skeptics doubted particles from Japan would even arrive, but it did.

The New York Times predicted March 16 that based on a United Nations forecast using computer models, the wind would carry the “radioactive plume” right into Southern California “late Friday” March 18. The Times said the radiation would be diluted as it traveled, and “at worst, would have extremely minor health consequences in the United States.”

The plume arrived Friday morning.

The AP reported March 19 that the plume hit Southern California and that “The U.S. Department of Energy said extremely small amounts of the radioactive isotopes iodine-131, iodine-132, tellurium-132 and cesium-137 had reached a Sacramento monitoring station … but the readings were far below levels that could pose any health risks.”

Regardless, the idea of inhaling a little bit of nuclear dust unnerved some.

Some people turned on their air purifiers and kept their windows closed. Others didn’t care.

As part of research for an article on uranium in 2007, time was spent with Kathleen Kaufman, who is the director for the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services Radiation Management unit.

It was noticed that Kaufman’s Geiger counter’s numbers went up and down as she tested different parts of an area in Long Beach. But though the numbers varied from spot to spot, this was to be expected she said. The areas tested all were within normal background levels. Her assistant said one could go into Home Depot and see the numbers go up, but that such readings were normal.

Radiation is everywhere naturally. It comes from the sun. It’s in the ground. It’s in buildings. It’s all around. If Geiger counter numbers go up, that doesn’t mean there’s a problem, since this can be within “background.” However, if numbers skyrocket, then there may be cause for concern.

And what is normal radiation “background” for one area may not be normal for another area. What is normal to Colorado may not be normal to California, and so on.

Thus the Beachcomber did not expect to see anything out of the ordinary here in terms of radiation from Japan.

However, as Kaufman communicated back in 2007 for the uranium article, she was only concerned about the amount of radiation the potential element gives off, not the actual metal itself. “My office only deals with the radiation part of it,” she said in the Beachcomber’s June 22, 2007 issue. “If people are having (heavy metal) health effects, they need to see a physician.”

The Associated Press reported March 18 that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “deployed extra radiation detectors throughout the country to allay public concerns.

“The radiation stations will send real time data via satellite to EPA officials, who will make the data available to the public online. The monitors also contain two types of air filters that detect any radioactive particles and are mailed to EPA’s data center in Alabama.”

But as of March 22, there were no reports online that dealt with the particulate aspect, only radiation conclusions that everything is safe. The Beachcomber asked the EPA that day if particulate reports were disclosed, and if so, where they could be found.

EPA Press Officer Mary Simms said, “No that information is not yet available,” but added it would be made public sometime in the future.

A few hours after the Beachcomber brought up the particulate aspect, the EPA released details in a fresh press release confirming that particles from Japan arrived here locally.

The press release was headlined, “Radiation Monitors Continue to Confirm That No Radiation Levels of Concern Have Reached the United States.” However, this does not mean that no particulate reached the U.S., only that the amount of radiation the particulate gives off is not a “level of concern.”

The media provided similar headlines in recent days leading some to believe nothing arrived here.

The press release reported, “During a detailed analysis of four west coast RadNet air monitor filters, the EPA identified trace amounts of radioactive iodine, cesium, and tellurium consistent with the Japanese nuclear incident. These levels are consistent with the levels found by a Department of Energy monitor last week and are to be expected in the coming days.”

The EPA does not have a filter in Long Beach. The closest one is in Anaheim, which detected the nuclear chemicals cesium-137, tellurium-132, iodine-132 and iodine-131.

The other testing stations in Riverside, San Francisco and Seattle detected the same materials, showing dust got here all the way from Japan.

But the EPA stressed that levels are so minute that people should not worry because it’s absolutely safe. The agency added that people get much more radiation from everyday natural sources.
However, what if someone with environmental sensitivities breathed in lots of outside air recently. Could they have a reaction? Could small animals and children be affected? There are many variables.

kirt@longbeachcomber.com