How is Our Air Quality Affected by the Japan Disaster?

How is Our Air Quality Affected by the Japan Disaster?

There has been some rather sensational reporting on the impact that Japan’s earthquake has had - and will have - upon the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and how this will impact air quality both in Japan and around the world. Some newspapers and TV channels have been comparing the radiation leaks from the plant with the Chernobyl nuclear disaster that happened in Ukraine in 1986. Well, this is a fast-moving story and who knows what might happen in weeks and months to come? But it seems to me that such a comparison is irresponsible scaremongering.
Here are a few of the facts that we know:

  • Excess radiation from Japan had not been detected by UK monitoring stations straight away - but then low levels of radioactive iodine were found in the air over Glasgow and Oxford at the end of March, according to the Health Protection Agency.
  • Although radiation from Japan has reached the West Coast of the United States, the US Department of Energy and the Environment Protection Agency say levels are 100,000 times smaller than the daily background dose of radiation
  • Increased radiation has been detected in Tokyo but this is not thought, at present, to pose a health risk
  • Increased levels of radiation have been found in foodstuffs close to Fukushima; the Japanese government says that drinking contaminated milk for a year would give you the same radiation dose as a CT scan and the corresponding annual intake of spinach is a dose one fifth that of a CT scan

By contrast, after Chernobyl a huge plume of radioactivity drifted over Europe and background levels of radiation were increased 100-fold in Sweden, Finland and Eastern Europe. Milk and dairy products in the UK were contaminated with radioactive caesium for many years, and their sale banned.

So, people in Japan will benefit from the use of a good HEPA air purifier to clean their air of radioactive dust, you do not need to worry here in the UK about removing excess radiation from the air (though don’t hesitate to use an air purifier to rid your indoor air of ultrafine dust from cars and planes, pet dander, pollen and other allergens and irritants).

I may deplore sensationalist coverage of the dangers emitting from the Fukushima Power Plant but I can certainly understand why people are scared. We fear nuclear power because radiation is invisible, hard to control and, once, inside our bodies, it can damage cells, causing cancer and birth defects. In fact, it is fossil fuels that should frighten us. Particles emitted from coal-fired power stations kill far more people than nuclear ever did - 13,200 people per annum in the US alone, according to ‘The Toll from Coal’, a report from the Clean Air Task Force.

I think the take-home messages from the crisis in Japan is the following. Be altruistic and think about what people there are suffering (give a donation if you can - And be aware that this suffering is coming overwhelmingly from the direct effects of the earthquake, not from the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear power station.



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