The purpose of this post is to summarize results from various studies that monitored the timing of arrival and activity of radioactive iodine falling from the atmosphere in western North America following the Fukushima disaster in 2011. Determining the activity of 131-I (half life ~8 day) in rain and seaweed, which serves as a biological monitor, is important because of the isotopes short half life and its propensity to concentrate in the human body, specifically the thyroid gland. This combination of rapid energy release and biological tissue targeting can represent a potential radiological health risk. Measurements of 131-I in rain collected in the San Francisco Bay area and southern British Columbia, Canada indicate that the atmospheric transport brought contaminated air from Fukushima to North America by March 18 roughly 1 week after the earthquake and tsunami. Depending on location, activities of 131-I in rain peaked between March 20-24 and were observed to decrease to background levels in the first week of April. Peak activities in seaweed occurred later on March 28 and were observed to return to background levels in mid-May. Maximum 131-I activities in rain resulting from Fukushima were a factor of 10 lower for rainwater and a factor of 40-80 lower for seaweed compared to similar measurements made following the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. Observed 131-I activities suggest that the upper limit of radiation dose to the public resulting from Fukushima was similarly an order of magnitude lower than that from Chernobyl suggesting that the short and long-term impact on human health in western North America is expected to be minor.
How Scientists Talk About Radioactivity
Scientists use a variety of units to measure radioactivity. A commonly used unit is the Becquerel (Bq for short) which represents an amount of radioactive material where one atom decays per second and has units of inverse time (per second). Another unit commonly used is disintegrations per minute (dpm) where the number of atoms undergoing radioactive decay in one minute are counted (so 1 Bq = 60 dpm).
131-Iodine Releases From Fukushima
As a result of the great eastern Japan earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011 three of six reactors melted down resulting in releases of radionuclides from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant to the environment. In terms of absolute activity released and potential for causing harm to organisms, 131-I (half life ~8 day) was one of the most significant. Given its volatility and the damage to reactor fuel rods large releases of ~2000 PBq (petaBequerel = 10^15 Bq) to the atmosphere and ocean occurred in the weeks following the disaster. Prevailing atmospheric circulation brought this plume of contaminated air to North America within one half life of 131-I where rain and fallout of aerosol particles delivered 131-I and other isotopes to land and coastal waters.
Monitoring of 131-I in the environment is important because as an essential nutrient when concentrated in the human body in the thyroid gland the decay of the isotope can cause damage resulting in negative health impacts like cancer. After the triple meltdowns stations in North America began monitoring the activities of released radionuclides in air, rainwater and seaweed to determine the risk to public health.
Rainwater activities of 131-I
Rainwater in the San Francisco Bay area was monitored and the results published in the open-access, peer reviewed journal PLOSOne in 2011 by Norman and co-workers. Measurements were made for the period March 16-26, 2011 on rainwater collected in Oakland, Berkeley hills and Albany, CA. Results of these measurements are summarized in the figure below:
This first sample with Fukushima radionuclides above background concentrations was collected on March 18 and activities peaked at 16 Bq/L rainwater on March 24.
Similar activities and timing of arrival of the atmospheric plume of 131-I were observed in southern British Columbia, Canada. Chester and colleagues published this work in the peer-reviewed Journal of Environmental Radioactivity in 2013. Maximum activity of 131-I of 5.8 Bq/L was detected in the Vancouver, BC area nine days after the Fukushima disaster on March 20, 2011. The activity of 131-I returned to background by early April 2011. Results are summarized in the figure below.
131-I levels in seaweed are known to correlate strongly with levels in rain and seaweeds are useful monitors for human made radionuclides in the environment as the concentrate isotopes from their surroundings and are geographically widespread. Seaweeds were collected along the Canadian west coast by Chester and colleagues and analyzed for 131-I following the Fukushima disaster. Results of these analyses are summarized in the figure below:
Maximum 131-I was detected in BC seaweed on March 22 near Vancouver and on March 28 off the west coast of Vancouver Island some 250 km to the west of the city. Peak activities were 130 and 67 Bq/kg respectively. By mid-May activities had returned to background activities in the seaweed.
Summary: Health Implications and Comparison to Chernobyl
The maximum levels of 131-I in rainwater can be compared to limits allowed in drinking water in both the USA and Canada. Maximum activities in rain were in the range ~6-16 Bq/L. For example the maximum allowable concentration (MAC) or activity allowed in Canadian drinking water is 6 Bq/L. The MAC for 131-I is calculated using a reference dose level of 0.1 mSv (where mSv = 0.001 Sv) for 1 year’s consumption of drinking water, assuming a consumption of 2 L/day at the MAC. This compares to an effective dose received by someone living in Vancouver of about 1.3 mSv. Given the short half-life of 131-I of ~8 days the actual dose attributable to Fukushima fallout in precipitation is likely to be much lower than the 0.1 mSv upper limit on which the drinking water MAC is based.
Indeed, comparing measurements in the studies above to measurements made on the west coast of North America in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 suggests that doses experienced by the public post Fukushima fallout were an order of magnitude lower. Measurements in the same species of seaweed in 1986 (behind paywall) are compared to the measurements of Chester and others here:
The calculated dose estimates to Canadians following the Chernobyl disaster were on the order of ~1 micoSievert (0.000001 Sv) (What is a Sievert, Sv?) while the peak 131-I activities present in rainwater after Fukushima suggest an upper dose of 0.1 microSv which is an order of magnitude lower dose.
These data have led health professionals in the US and Canada to expect that short-term and longer-term impact of Fukushima on public and environmental health to be very small compared to other radiological impacts from natural and legacy sources of radiation.