Blue Marble - April 2011

Is There Radiation in Your Seafood?

| Mon Apr. 11, 2011 2:30 AM PDT

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 econundrums@motherjones.com. Get all your green questions answered by visiting Econundrums on Facebook here.

 

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BP vs the Dwarf Seahorse

| Fri Apr. 8, 2011 2:59 PM PDT
Dwarf seahorse. Credit: Stickpen, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition on Wednesday seeking Endangered Species Act protection for the dwarf seahorse (Hippocampus zosterae)—a victim of myriad troubles in its tiny world:

  • BP's oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico
  • Seagrass beds destroyed by shrimp trawlers, pollution, and climate change
  • Commercial collection for aquariums, curios, and "medicine"

These one-inch-long (2.5-centimeter-long) seahorses live only in the shallow seagrass beds of the Gulf, off Florida, and in the Caribbean.

Long before BP unleashed its oil and dispersants, all three regions had been hard hit by destructive fishing practices, lousy boating practices, and pollution. Since 1950, Florida has lost more than half—in some places more than 90 percent—of its seagrass beds. The numbers aren't a whole lot better for the rest of the Gulf.

 

Range map of the dwarf seahorse, Hippocampus zosterae. From FishBase.org.Range map of the dwarf seahorse, Hippocampus zosterae. From FishBase.org.

 

The IUCN Red List finds insufficient data—a fact in BP's favor—to assign a listing to the dwarf seahorse: 

There are no published data about population trends or total numbers of mature animals for this species. There is very little available information about its extent of occurrence or its area of occupancy. There have been no quantitative analyses examining the probability of extinction of this species. As a result, we have insufficient data to properly assess the species against any of the IUCN criteria, and propose a listing of data deficient.

This species may be particularly susceptible to decline. The information on habitat suggests they inhabit shallow seagrass beds that are susceptible to human degradation, as well as making them susceptible to being caught as bycatch. All seahorse species have vital parental care, and many species studied to date have high site fidelity, highly structured social behaviour, and relatively sparse distributions. The importance of life history parameters in determining response to exploitation has been demonstrated for a number of species.

Dwarf seahorses can't live anywhere but in seagrass. They live only a single year. Whether we have data or not, the truth is BP probably took out most of the 2009 year-class and its 2010 year-class offspring in the northern Gulf last year.

 

 

Eco-News Roundup: Friday April 8

| Fri Apr. 8, 2011 4:54 AM PDT

News on health, the environment, and other green topics from our other blogs.

Right to Sue: Republicans are trying to reduce malpractice suits, just as report shows more medical mistakes.

Flip-Flop: First Republicans hype "death panels", now they want to ration care.

Feeling the Burn: Under Paul Ryan's budget, the elderly and poor would pay more health care costs.

Poll Says: Medicaid might be more popular than some would-be reformers think.

Down South: Florida's not okay with the word "uterus" but they're fine with mandatory ultrasounds.

On Accident: Louisiana oil refineries have 10 accidents, nearly every week.

Show Down: GOP reps say they can't compromise on abortion, even if it means shutting the government down.

Future Health: Is it realistic to think health care costs will continue expanding ad infinitum?

Tennessee House Passes Creationism Bill

| Fri Apr. 8, 2011 3:14 AM PDT

The state that infamously hosted the Scopes Monkey Trial more than 85 years ago is at it again. Yesterday Tennessee's General Assembly overwhelmingly passed a bill that would make it easier for public schools to teach creationism. The bill would require educators to "assist teachers to find effective ways to present the science curriculum as it addresses scientific controversies." It lists four "controversies" ripe for pedagogical tinkering: biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.

"This is part of a long held creationist strategy," says Steven Newton, policy director for the National Center for Science Education. "By doing everything except mention the Bible, they are attacking evolution without the theology."

Yesterday's floor debate on the bill, though not quite as dramatic as Inherit the Wind, was nonetheless a tour de force in creative polemics. For example, Republican state Rep. Frank Niceley implied that Albert Einstein, who was more or less an agnostic Jew, was actually a Christian and ergo creationism should be taught in schools:

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And then there was state Rep. Sheila Butt's Aqua Net theory:

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Did Butt really learn this in high school? Or is she confusing global warming with ozone layer depletion? Has she seen this piece in Science? Just a few "critical-thought questions" for Butt's colleagues in the state Senate, who'll decide the ultimate fate of the bill in the coming months.

For Texas Lawmakers, ALL Family Planning = Abortion

| Thu Apr. 7, 2011 12:00 PM PDT

Texas already has a law that bans state funding for any group that provides or promotes abortion. But that hasn't stopped conservative lawmakers from attempting to end state-funded reproductive health counseling in the name of saving unborn fetuses. State Rep. Bill Zedler has won an amendment to the Texas budget that would reduce funding for "family planning services," a move that he says is intended to defund "the abortion industry."

Family planning services, offered in Texas by groups such as Planned Parenthood, include gynecological exams, birth control counseling, HIV and cancer screening, and pregnancy testing. Supported by generous matching funds from the federal government, the services are believed to save $4 in government costs for every dollar spent. Under Texas law, no clinic that participates in state family planning services may offer or promote abortions.

Republicans in Texas (and in Washington) are going after family planning as way to defund Planned Parenthood, which, separately, also happens to operate abortion clinics. But that's a strange way to defund "the abortion industry." It might actually accomplish the opposite. If funding goes down for birth control and pregnancy counseling, abortion providers could find themselves in higher demand.

H/T Texas Tribune

The EPA's Moment of Truth

| Wed Apr. 6, 2011 2:24 PM PDT

Tension is running high in both chambers of Congress. "It's a sad day," said Rep. Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.) on the House floor, where Congressional representatives are sparring over the future role of the Environmental Protection Agency. As we've reported previously, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Kent.) introduced H.R. 910 as an effort to reverse the EPA's ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. Now, all is coming to a head.

The main thrust of the bill is that Congress, not the EPA, should have the authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, but the debate is heating up as Republicans and Democrats clash over larger implications of bill, including accepting the science behind climate change, the effects on health, and local economies. In their last line of defense, some House Democrats are pushing back by introducing a dozen amendments that would "clarify" the H.R. and retain some of the EPA's powers, some of which failed to pass by a voice vote. Dems are motioning to send them into a roll-call vote.

Meanwhile, the Senate just rejected Sen. Mitch McConnell's (R-Kent.) amendment to a small business bill mirroring H.R. 910, by a narrow 10 votes. The Senate is now proceeding with three similar small business bills.

Watch the action live on C-SPAN (for the House) and C-SPAN2 (for the Senate).

[Update: The Senate has rejected all four motions. Read more on this at Nature.]

 

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Transocean Execs Donate Part of Bonuses, Keep More

| Wed Apr. 6, 2011 10:41 AM PDT

Five Transocean executives got massive bonuses for their performance and safety record in 2010. A Transocean Annual Report called 2010 "the best year in safety performance in our company's history," which seems patently false (or incredibly callous) in light of the April Deepwater Horizon explosion that killed 11 workers and spawned the second-largest oil spill in history. Public outrage has motivated executives to donate $250,000 of their 2010 bonuses to the families of workers who died in the explosion. But $250,000 is just the part of the bonuses that's directly linked to safety. There's a lot of compensation they're getting for 2010 performance that they're keeping. From Forbes

The five executives will retain about $650,000 in cash incentives... They will also retain much more valuable “long-term incentives” in the form of stocks and options... CEO Steven L. Newman will donate about $93,500 to Transocean’s Deepwater Horizon Memorial Fund. Newman received a $900,000 salary in 2010 that ballooned to $6.6 million through categories of remuneration described as bonuses, incentives, stocks, options, and allowances. For 2011, Newman received a 22 percent raise in his base salary—an additional $200,000.

I'd be more able to applaud the executive's donation of $250,000 to the workers' families if it weren't such a small part of their total compensation package. It makes it even harder to be sympathetic when the reason (the Annual Report says) the executives were compensated as they were was because they had to spend so much time and effort dealing with the Deepwater Horizon disaster. In reading the Annual Report, the company seems to take little responsibility for the rig's destruction, and puts yearly profits far ahead of any ongoing environmental costs.

 

Japan's Radioactive Ocean

| Tue Apr. 5, 2011 2:29 PM PDT
 

It's spring in Japan's ocean waters, the time of highest primary productivity, when lengthening days reawaken the hibernating marine foodweb.

The satellite image above is from the area about 160 kilometers/100 miles north of the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant. It was shot on 21 May 2009 and shows where Japan's two mighty ocean currents—the Kuroshio and the Oyashio—collide.

The convergence zone is awesomely rich. The Oyashio flows down form the Arctic, the Kuroshio up from the subtropics. Where they meet you get all kinds of fascinating expressions of fluid dynamics—highlighted in the image above by eddies colored aquamarine by the presence of intensely blooming phytoplankton.

(Japan's ocean currents: 1. Kuroshio, 7. Oyashio. Credit: Tosaka, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Fluid dynamics drive biological dynamics too, and the phytoplankton are busting their tiny chlorophyll guts, so to speak, feasting in the collision zone—where nutrients are getting churned up from the seafloor to deliver nature's own signature blend of Miracle-Gro.

According to the engineering specs for Earth, without phytoplankton making life from nonlife, there would be little life in the ocean, perhaps none in Japan or just about anywhere else.

But this year the phytoplankton that feed everything else in the sea, one or four trophic levels removed, are likely to be sporting a couple of far-out new ingredients: iodine-131 and cesium-137.

 

(The coccolithophore Gephyrocapsa oceanica, a type of phytoplankton. Credit: ja:User:NEON / commons:User:NEON_ja, via Wikimedia Commons.)

So what might hefty doses of ionizing radiation mean for phytoplankton, Japanese waters, and the world ocean?

Well, the French group SIROCCO is using its 3D SIROCCO ocean circulation model to investigate the seawater dispersion of Fukushima's radionuclides. You can read about their modeling system here.

Basically, they're looking at:

 
  • Bathymetry (undersea topography) around Japan
  • Large-scale forcing (e.g., daily sea surface heights, temperatures, salinities, and currents)
  • Tides (for this, they've developed a specific regional tidal model)
  • Atmospheric forcing (e.g., the radioactive fallout from air to sea via winds and rain)
 

(A single frame from an animation suggesting possible pathways for radionuclides in Japanese water. Full animation here. Credit: SIROCCO.)

The SIROCCO group stress their disclaimers and I will too: These models are based on mathematical equations too simple to capture the dynamism and complexity of the physical and biological systems at play in the real world.

Still, the models are a great starting point and are sure to get better fast.

So far they suggests that the radionuclides falling from air to sea have spread ~600 kilometers/372 north-south miles along the shore, and ~150 kilometers/93 miles offshore. Dilution goes hand-in-hand with dispersion, though, and these air-deposited radionuclides are 20 to 100 times less concentrated in ocean water the farther you move from the Fukushima plant.

However the radionuclides being released directly into the ocean—from TEPCO's purposeful release of 10,000 tons of water, and from as-yet unknown leaking pathways—are acting differently.

(A single frame from an animation showing ocean currents off Japan. Full animation here. Credit: SIROCCO.)

The model suggests these ocean-released radionuclides are being naturally sequestered within 50 kilometers/31 miles of the plant. But they're also more intense—1000 times more so around Fukushima than in the air-to-sea deposits further out.

The good news is that the powerhouse of the Kuroshio Current—a humongous western boundary current like the Gulf Stream—appears to be forming a kind of firewall keeping the contamination away from Tokyo's coast and funneling it east.

You can see that dynamic in the image above. Again, animations here.

 

(A single frame from an animation suggesting possible vertical dispersion  for radionuclides in Japanese waters. Full animation here. Credit: SIROCCO.)

The SIROCCO model is also forecasting  vertical dispersal in the ocean—an important consideration since at least some radionuclides will get incorporated into seafloor sediments and from there remobilized by living things that chomp on the seafloor.
 
See my earlier post with a graphic showing how this works.
 
The image above forecasts possible vertical dispersion in the waters closest to the Fukushima plant for those radionuclides released directly into the sea. Animation here.
 

(Diatoms, types of phytoplankton, as seen through the microscope. Credit: Prof. Gordon T. Taylor, Stony Brook University, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Whatever pathways the Fukushima poisons take, they will certainly alter the springtime blossoming of Japan's ocean, starting with the phytoplankton and working up the foodweb.
 
As for the effects on the rest of the world ocean, it's a matter of how much, how far, and for how long Fukushima's newborn radionuclides go sailing.
 
Cross-posted from my blog Deep Blue Home.

 

Front page image credit: Hiroshige/Wikimedia

An EPA-Gutting Bill by Any Other Name

| Tue Apr. 5, 2011 2:19 PM PDT

There isn't much that congressional fans of the planet can do to stop the bill that would forever bar the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. The best they can hope for, at least in the House, appears to be renaming the bill. A few options for renaming the "Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011" that Democrats submitted to the Rules Committee as amendments:

  • "Koch Brothers Appreciation Act"
  • "Middle Eastern Economic Development and Assistance Act"
  • "Protecting Americans from Polar Bears Act"
  • "Oil Producing Economy Capitulation Act"
  • "Head in the Sand Act"
  • "Dirty Air Act of 2011"
  • "Termination of EPA Greenhouse Gas Regulation in Order To Eliminate the Clean Air Act"

Other amendments that Democrats have offered would seek to formally recognize that climate change is a problem that presents environmental, health, and national security risks.

The House and Senate are both likely to vote this week on bills to block the EPA's greenhouse gas rules, and, as the Hill reports, the EPA riders are still dogging the budget fight. Even if the efforts to gut EPA authority do pass, the White House affirmed on Tuesday in a formal "Statement of Administration Policy" that President Obama would veto such a measure.

Have your own suggestions for what to re-name the EPA-gutting bill? Weigh in below.

My Uterus, LLC

| Tue Apr. 5, 2011 11:38 AM PDT

Florida women can now symbolically incorporate their uteruses, in protest of both the onslaught of bills limiting reproductive rights and the ban on the u-word in the state House. 

Incorporatemyuterus.com, where women can file for corporate uterus status, is a project of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. (If you really want to take a stab at making it legal, though, you'll need to see the Florida Department of State Division of Corporations.) Here's the idea:

Businesses get special treatment these days. If lawmakers and other politicians see your uterus and your body as a business, maybe they’ll work to get government out of the uterus regulation business as they do for every other company.

This was the point that State Rep. Scott Randolph (D-Orlando) was trying to make last week when the GOP Speaker of the Florida House forbade him from using medically appropriate terminology in the chamber—maybe if a woman's uterus were a private corporation, Republicans would stop trying to make laws about it. Adam has more uterus news over at MoJo blog.

Side benefit of incorporating your uterus: Now it can donate unlimited cash to political action committees! (Hat tips: @jodmentum and @jimhigdon)