Kiera Butler

Kiera Butler

Senior Editor

A senior editor at Mother Jones, Kiera covers health, food, and the environment. She is the author of the new book Raise: What 4-H Teaches 7 Million Kids—and How Its Lessons Could Change Food and Farming Forever (University of California Press).


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Is There Radiation in Your Seafood?

The oceans around Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant are beginning to show troubling signs of radioactivity. Recent tests by TEPCO found levels far surpassing legal limits, iodine by 7.5 million times and cesium by 1.1 million times. As MoJo environmental correspondent Julia Whitty has reported in several recent posts, radioactive material is now entering the marine food web, and will likely only continue to work its way up. And ocean currents are carrying the contaminants far and wide. As a result of the increased radiation levels, several countries, including Hong Kong, Russia, and India, have enacted temporary bans on Japanese seafood imports. But so far, there is no such ban in the US.

So should I steer clear of sushi?

Some experts believe that there's little cause for concern. Andrew Maidment, an associate professor of radiology at the University of Pennsylvania, points out that people are typically exposed to 3 millisieverts of "background radiation" every year. (Did you know that Fiesta ware, smoke detectors, and bananas all emit low levels of radiation?) Maidment says that according to data from TEPCO, eating seafood from near the Fukushima plant for a year would up your radiation exposure by .6 millisieverts, roughly a 20 percent increase from normal background exposure. "But all kinds of things can increase your radiation levels," says Maidment. "People who live at high altitudes can easily be exposed to twice the radiation of people at sea level, for example."

FDA spokeswoman Siobhan DeLancey assured me that so far, imported seafood that the agency has tested has not shown elevated levels of radiation. She attributed this in part to the ocean's ability to both dilute radiation and protect marine life. "Airborne radiation settles on the surface of the water and acts as a barrier to fish under the surface," she wrote in an email. "In the case of a direct release into the sea, the amount of water in the ocean rapidly dilutes and disperses the radiation to negligible levels."

But other scientists are not so sure that ocean ecosystems are in the clear. Over at Yale e360 Elizabeth Grossman has a great, comprehensive rundown of what scientists know about radiation's effect on sea life, and what they have yet to figure out. This is interesting:

How the radioactive materials released from the Fukushima plants will behave in the ocean will depend on their chemical properties and reactivity, explained Ted Poston, a ecotoxicologist with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, a U.S. government facility in Richland, Washington. If the radionuclides are in soluble form, they will behave differently than if they are absorbed into particles, said Poston. Soluble iodine, for example, will disperse rather rapidly. But if a radionuclide reacts with other molecules or gets deposited on existing particulates—bits of minerals, for example—they can be suspended in the water or, if larger, may drop to the sea floor.

Given all the unknowns, you'd think testing US oceans for radiation would be top priority for the government. Is it?

Sure doesn't seem like it. I emailed the National Oceanic and Atmostpheric Administration to ask how the agency was testing for radiation in the ocean. A spokeswoman would only tell me that "NOAA is playing a supporting role in the Administration's response effort." When I asked her to describe exactly what that role was, she declined to answer.

Meanwhile, the environmental health advocacy group Food & Water Watch has criticized the FDA for inadequate inspection of imported seafood. FWW executive director Wenonah Hauter told me that the agency inspects only 2 percent of all seafood imports. The FDA's DeLancey would neither confirm nor deny Hauter's assertion, saying only: "While it's difficult to quantify exactly how much of a given product is subject to inspection, FDA uses its knowledge of various import factors and vulnerabilities to target for the most efficient and effective public health intervention. Because of the potential for radionuclide contamination, we have chosen to screen all foods from Japan very stringently until the situation stabilizes."

So which elements could eventually wind up in my sushi, and how long will they stick around?

It's hard to find specific information about the health effects of radiation, but here's what I've cobbled together: The three radioactive elements present in greatest quantities around Fukushima are iodine-131, cesium-134, and cesium-137. Iodine is of the greatest immediate concern, since both humans and sea mammals accumulate it in the thyroid. Luckily, it only has a half-life of eight days, so the levels around Fukushima are already dropping dramatically. The cesiums, on the other hand, are more of a long-term risk: Cesium-134 has a half-life of two years, and cesium-137, 30 years. Damon Mogler, director of the climate and energy program at the environmental advocacy group Friends of the Earth, told me that "cesium builds up in bottom feeders, crustaceans and bivalves, which in turn get eaten by bigger fish, and ultimately, people." Maidment explains that since cesium is chemically similar to potassium, the body processes it similarly, meaning it can build up in muscle tissue.

What are the potential health effects of ingesting radiation from seafood?

No one knows yet whether the radiation from the Fukushima disaster will build up in levels high enough to cause human health problems, but we do know that accumulation of radiation in your body can lead to cancer. The EPA has a pretty good explanation of how it works here.

Are people eating less seafood because of radiation fears?

Yes, report Bloomberg and the NY Times. Several important fish auctions around the world were canceled in the wake of the nuclear disaster, and NPR reports that prices at Japan's famous Tsukiji fish market have "plummeted." FWIW, I called a local sushi restaurant called Tsukiji in Mill Valley, California, and they told me business had slowed down "a little bit" in recent weeks.

Got a burning eco-quandary? Submit it to Get all your green questions answered by visiting Econundrums on Facebook here.


Should Foodies Be Fasting?

When fasting is in the news these days, it's usually accompanied by words like "cleanse" and "detox." You give up microwave burritos for a while, maybe hit a few yoga classes, and emerge on the other side simultaneously skinnier and more grounded. Or something.

But this week, some people are practicing a different kind of fast: They're hungerstriking to protest the cuts proposed in the house budget bill H.R.1, a brutal piece of legislation that would take food, medicine, and services away from the people who need it most—in order to provide tax breaks for wealthy individuals and corporations. For a side-by-side comparison of cuts to aid programs and tax breaks for rich people, check out this cool chart over at the Center for American Progress. 

The growing list of fasters includes leaders of religious organizations, NGOS, activists groups, and others. On Tuesday, Mark Bittman devoted his column to the topic. The whole thing is worth reading, but his basic point is this:

...we need to gather and insist that our collective resources be used for our collective welfare, not for the wealthiest thousand or even million Americans but for a vast majority of us in the United States and, indeed, for citizens of the world who have difficulty making ends meet. Or feeding their kids.

Bittman's stirring words led me to wonder what might happen if a critical mass of foodies all joined the fasting movement. Now, this is not a group known for its self-restraint. In fact, recently, foodies have been accused of not just gluttony, but devious gluttony: In a recent Atlantic article B.R. Myers lambasted them for using a facade of politically correct causes (the struggling farmers! The beakless chickens!) to dress up what is really just a desire to eat lots and lots of delicious fancy food.

Foodies, (and especially food writers and bloggers), I invite you to put your morals where your mouth is, prove Myers wrong, and lay off the locally cured bacon and hand-gathered chanterelles for as long as you see fit. I'll be fasting today, which is kind of cheating, since Bittman and others started fasting way back on Monday. But since I've never fasted before, I'm starting small. We'll see how it goes. First order of business: Get someone to remove the chocolate taunting me from my desk drawer. Help!

Does the Japan Quake Make a US Quake More Likely?

Seismically speaking, it's been a rough few months on the Pacific rim. On February 27, 2010, an 8.8-magnitude earthquake struck Chile. In September, two major quakes rocked New Zealand's South Island, and a 6.3 followed in February in Christchurch. Just a few weeks after that, the devastating 9.0 quake struck Japan, causing a tsunami and a nuclear crisis. These quakes occurred on three of the four "corners" of the notoriously jumpy Ring of Fire. The other corner? The West Coast of the United States. So does this series of earthquakes up the US's chances of the dreaded "Big One"?

This Newsweek story from last week suggests that the answer is yes, since the earth is "like a great brass bell, which when struck by an enormous hammer blow on one side sets to vibrating and ringing from all over." Rogue seismologist Jim Berkland, who claims to be able to predict earthquakes based in part on tides and the moon, has also warned that a major US quake is imminent.

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