Video stokes fears about Fukushima radiation, but experts stress caution 

Fukushima is here.

But there’s nothing to fear, except for the viral power of the Internet.

Nearly three years after a massive 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami wrecked Japan and sent a wave careening across the Pacific Ocean to California in March 2011, fears about radiation from the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station reached a high-water mark.

On Dec. 23, an unidentified man with a hand-held Geiger counter recorded radiation five times the normal background level at a San Mateo County beach. The video was widely shared on social media, including more than 610,000 views on YouTube.

The U.K.-based Daily Mail this week published an online story that suggests the beachside radiation may be linked to the Fukushima disaster, and that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and California Department of Public Health are performing investigations.

And indeed they have, with soil and sand samples from Half Moon Bay currently being analyzed.

Does this mean it’s time to sell the surfboard, swear off Pacific Ocean seafood and otherwise get as far away from the shore as possible?

If so, don’t blame Fukushima, scientists and public-health officials say.

Radiation leaking from the plant will indeed lead to more deaths from cancer and leukemia — about 130 total worldwide, according to a study conducted by Stanford University researchers.

Researchers note that radiation from the disaster can be traced and tracked by the presence of three telltale elements: cesium 134 and 137 and iodine 131.

Thus far, the EPA, which has monitoring stations throughout the country and California, including one in San Francisco, has yet to detect elevated levels of these isotopes, according to spokeswoman Kelly Zito.

Fine. But what about the radiation seen on the beach in the video? Turns out there’s a perfectly natural explanation.

“Radium, thorium and uranium often concentrate on beaches due to the stratifying effect of wave and wind action, removing lighter-weight particles,” said Zito, who noted these radioactive strips “may appear as rivulets of dark gray, brown or black sand.”

Fukushima-related radiation fears have spread like wildfire on social media before.

Last summer, a map purporting to show cesium soaking the Pacific in radiation — with great swaths of radioactive red reaching out to California — turned out to be a legitimate National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration map. But it showed wave heights following the earthquake, not radiation.

For now, the biggest risk to people’s lives from Fukushima may be unnecessary stress from an “incredible amount of disinformation,” according to Dan Sythe, the Sebastopol-based CEO of a radiation-detecting device firm.

“I’m increasingly concerned about the effects of these terrible rumors that have no basis in fact,” he posted Monday on “Please consider doing a little research before you hit the Forward button.”

click to enlarge Ocean Beach
  • juan pardo/Special to the S.f. Examiner
  • A surfer walks along Ocean Beach on Wednesday. The EPA says there is a simple explanation for data presented by a YouTube video showing heightened levels of radiation along the Peninsula coast.

About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has worked as a reporter in San Francisco since 2008, with an emphasis on city governance and politics, The City’s neighborhoods, race, poverty and the drug war.
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