Friday, October 14, 2011

Radium in the Basement:

Unexpected Finds from Fukushima Radiation Searches

It was almost a moment of comic relief to me. After all the stories from Fukushima, especially the stories about pockets of high radiation levels being found far from the plant site, I read a story about an anomalously high radiation reading in Tokyo that turned out to be Radium-226 for luminous paint!

And the story hit somewhat close to home for me! The material was found in an abandoned home in Setagaya Ward, which is the part of Tokyo in which I lived when I spent a year there in 1998-1999. It was not in my immediate neighborhood, but close enough to get my attention. The material was found under the floorboards of an unoccupied house. The owner, a 90-year-old widow who vacated the house early this year, has no idea how it got there. Her deceased husband was an office worker and had nothing to do with radioactive materials. (Storage under the floorboards does not have the somewhat sinister implications it often has in US culture. Japanese houses have no basements and are built with crawl spaces under them. In small buildings with limited storage space, the space under the floorboards is often used for storage.)

The source of the material and the reason it's there is still a mystery. So far, no one is implying the house was broken into while vacant. The bottles are old, and the authorities are busy estimating the dose the woman would have received assuming they had been there a long time.

Of course, the comic relief was temporary. Like other cases where radioactive materials have found their way into the public domain, this could have had much more harmful consequences. What if someone had bought the house and had children sleeping just above the material? It is an accidental piece of luck that a search for radiation hot spots from Fukushima turned up this stash and possibly prevented the exposure of innocent people.

But after all the stories of radioactive contamination, and hot spots unexpectedly far from the reactors, it was a nice piece of news to hear that the search led to a discovery that might have prevented a smaller tragedy, but a tragedy nonetheless.



  1. Wish the (anti-nuke) MSM ran this story even just for cynical humor on radiation hysteria which even has serious impacts choosing irradiated foods to destitute countries without refrigeration.

    James Greenidge

  2. @Gail - I read the story a different way. The evidence described so far indicates that the bottles were under the floorboards for decades while the lady who lived in the house went about her normal tasks without any concerns or knowledge that they were there.

    That lady is now 90 years old. Though it is just anecdotal, the facts indicate that there was no harm done by the radiation. That happens to match with the expectation that I have based on reading Kondo's "Health Effects of Low Level Radiation" and on reading papers by people like Cuttler, Jaworski, Pollycove, Muckerheide, Rockwell, Calabrese, and Cohen (among others). Those bottles could have stayed where they were forever and still not caused any harm.

    We have been carefully taught to fear radiation, even at doses that do not damage human health. The imposed fear of radiation dates back all the way to the Eben Myers case, the radium dial watch painters, and even stories about Pierre, Marie and Irene Curie. The problem is that all of those often promoted cases of negative health effects involved people who were exposed to doses that are many orders of magnitude greater than the ones we are currently taught to fear.

    The dose makes the poison. The stories coming out of Japan about finding previously unknown caches of material like radium-226 that have been in circulation or storage for years are just examples of unreasonable overreaction to radiation that is not at dangerous levels.

  3. Rod,

    Thanks for your comment. I don't want to drift too far into the radiation effects area, but I do want to clarify that my point was not whether this material did or did not harm the 90-year-old resident. Certainly, the dose was at a level that most experts in the field agree would only affect a small fraction of people. As you say, the woman is reported to be in good health, but that is a sample size of one. (And I haven't seen any reports on the cause of her husband's death.)

    But my training leads me to think about "what ifs":

    - What if she had slept on the floor (as many Japanese still do) immediately above the stored containers, so was only one foot away instead of 6 feet away?

    - What if the material hadn't been discovered and removed, and the next resident has a young child who plays and sleeps on the floor immediately above the stored containers? We all know that young children are more susceptible to radiation effects.

    - What if the material hadn't been discovered and removed, and someone in the future were to find the containers, open them, and play with the powder? This happened in Goiania, Brazil in 1987, and resulted in 4 deaths and about 20 cases of radiation sickness.

    My point was that such material was intended to be controlled--for good reason--but it wasn't. Therefore, in the midst of all the disruptions, contamination, and anxiety caused by Fukushima, the search for radiation hotspots from the incident unexpectedly revealed the existence of these hidden materials and possibly averted a tragedy in that neighborhood of Tokyo.