California officials say radiation ‘plume’ from Japan won’t increase state’s levels above normal

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A geiger counter. Creative Commons photo from Flickr user Nick Stanbridge.

California health and emergency officials said a “plume” of radiation coming from the Japanese nuclear crisis that’s expected to hit the West Coast as early as tomorrow will bring radiation levels to no higher than normal background levels.

The officials from the California Department of Public Health and the California Emergency Management Agency said the state is simply too far away from Japan to create any harmful affects, even in a “worst case scenario.”  Rain over the Pacific Ocean will take out some of the radiation, while the so-called “plume” will disperse much like smoke into an area so wide it’s unlikely to cause a danger, they said.

“The background level could go up hundreds of times and not go to a level harmful to human health,” said Jonathan Fielding, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health “I guard against overly, slavishly looking at that to be an indicator of concern.”

The quickly arranged press conference on Thursday came after a United Nations forecast that predicted the possible movement of a radioactive plume hitting the West Coast on late Friday, after first touching the Aleutian Islands on Thursday. The forecast stated that the plume would be diluted and would have extremely minor health consequences in the United States, even if monitors were able to detect it.

Public anxiety in California has become so pitched that California officials repeatedly stressed that people should not take potassium iodide as protection, as it can have toxic impacts far worse than the anticipated effects of a small increase in radiation.

“We’re concerned people will suffer the effect of iodide without seeing any benefit,” said Howard Backer, the interim director of the California Department of Public Health. “Rather than buying potassium iodide, I would encourage everyone to buy three to five days of food and water so when we have our earthquake you can be prepared to be self-sufficient.”

The officials also addressed news reports that passengers arriving from Tokyo into Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport had set off radiation detectors. They said radiation detector machines are extremely sensitive and will detect any significant increase in radiation, but that doesn’t mean human health is in danger.

So far, they said that radiation monitors have detected no increase in radiation in California. The state maintains eight monitors (two in Eureka, and one in Richmond, Livermore, Avila Beach, San Louis Obispo, Los Angeles and San Diego), while the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency maintains 124 monitors across the country in the RadNet system, including ones in San Francisco, San Jose and Sacramento.

The EPA is adding more radiation monitors to its RadNet system along the West Coast following concern over Japan’s nuclear crisis, although officials will not reveal how many monitors or their location. The 124 monitors currently in the RadNet system track in real time the radiation levels in the air, drinking water and milk. Anyone can obtain RadNet data by registering with the EPA’s Central Data Exchange.

State officials noted that predicting the spread of radiation from Japan, which is 5,000 miles away, is difficult.

“There’s not a leading front that we can track here and we don’t have monitors every 100 miles across the Pacific,” Backer said. “It totally depends on the wind patterns if we see it on the West Coast. Likely it’s first to be detected in Alaska because of the way prevailing air patterns go.”

Backer also said he would “guarantee the public will know if [radiation is] detected.”

“Our challenge is going to be making people know that detecting is not a sign of public health,” he said. “We want to keep our environment clean and no one’s happy about what’s happening in Japan, but this radiation is going to happen for the most part in the water and in the air it’s not going to rise to significant levels.”

Backer also said that seafood imports would also not be impacted because of dispersal patterns and the size of the ocean, and that divers, surfers, and swimmers were not at risk.

The officials said they are relying on daily calls with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to understand the impacts of worst-case scenarios in Japan’s rapidly deteriorating nuclear crisis.

The state is maintaining a California hotline to answer the public’s questions about radiation. It’s open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m.: 916-341-3947

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This story originally appeared in Way Out West News, a Bay Area environmental news website.