Frantic Friday #37. The Aftermaths of the Japanese Earthquake & Tsunami. With Emphasis on (Mis)information

19 03 2011

The Frantic Friday belongs to the same series as the Silly Saturday, Funny Friday etc. posts. These are not directly related to Science or library matters. Often these post are about  humorous things, but not in this case. Therefore the name of the series was adapted. It took me a week to write it down, so it reflects what happens over the entire period (and insights did change)

 

Aerial of Sendai, Japan, following earthquake.

Last week was overshadowed by the terrible earthquake in North East Japan, and the subsequent tsunami which swept away many villages in this part of the country. Some people see this as a sign of the world coming to an end, especially since the dates of the Twin tower attack (9-11-01) and the date of the Tsunami in Japan (3-10-11) add up to 12/21/12, the predicted date of the end of the world. Whether you believe in this omen or not (I don’t), the pictures and videos of this event sure do show the unprecedented power of nature, which is devastating beyond imagination. The Jazeera video below was shown on Dutch tv the entire morning: people, cars and boats have no time to escape and a large tsunami is engulfing various cities, eating anything on its path.

Another impressive video shows how a small stream grows to a wild turbulent flood and sweeps away cars and even houses. Sadly, many commenters to this video see the disaster as a punishment for “those that have turned there backs on HIM etc”. Videos like these can now be found anywhere, like at BBC news Asia.

Here are photo’s before and after the tsunami, and here are some photos, not only showing the violent streams, but also the consequences. I was especially moved by this photo of what appear to be mother and child. For after all, this natural disaster is mainly a human tragedy. Lets hope many beloved (human and animal) have found or find each other in good health again, like this reunion of a dog owner and his dog.

As if it wasn’t enough there was also a volcano eruption last Sunday, and the initial small problems with the nuclear plants near to the tsunami area seem now to get out of hand (see below).

Indirectly, there are some library, web 2.0/social media & science aspects to this natural disaster. I will concentrate on (medical and scientific) information

Google immediately reacted  to Japanese tsunami with a Person Finder tool (Engadget). As in the Haiti earthquake (see earlier post), Cochrane makes Evidence Aid resources available.

Immediately after the earthquake we could learn some scientific facts about earthquakes and tsunamis. On thing I learned is that the more superficial the earthquake the more devastating the effects in the area surrounding it. I also learned that a tsunami can have a speed of 800 km per hour, i.e. “flies” with the speed of an airplane, and that a wave can be 1 km long and have an incredible force. Science writers further explain why Japan’s tsunami triggered an enormous whirlpool.

These are facts, but with the nuclear effects we are unsure as to what is happening and “how bad it will be”. I’m a scientist, but surely no expert in this field, and I find the information confusing, contradictory and sometimes misleading.

Lets start with the misleading information. Of course there are people who see the hand of God in this all, but that is so obviously without any foundation (“uit de lucht gegrepen”), that I won’t discuss it further.

First this nuclear fallout map. (it is a lie!)

I saw it on Facebook and took it seriously. Others received it by mail, with an explanation that 550-750 rads means “nausea within a couple of hours and no survivors.” Clearly that is nonsense (fallout killing all people in the US East Coast). Also disturbingly, the makers of this map “bored” the logo of the Australian Radiation Services (ARS). (see Snopes.com, thanks to David Bradley of Sciencebase.com who mentioned it on Facebook).

But the pro-nuclear people come with equal misinformation. There is a strange link on Facebook leading to a post : “MIT scientist says no problems”. The post was blogged by an australian teacher in Japan, who wrote up the words of a friend, family member and MIT-scientist Josef Oehmen (@josefoehmen on Twitter)… But the post really seems to be a repost from something called The Energy Collective, and written by Brooks, a strong proponent of nuclear power. The site is powered by Siemens AG, which recently became an “industry partner” of MIT/LAI. (and the circle is round). Read about this and more at Genius Now in : The Strange Case of Josef Oehmen (access the cache if the site can’t be reached). The German translation of the official piece is here. The comments (permitted) are revealing….

Another misleading claim is that of attorney Ann Coulter in a column and in the O’Reilly show:

With the terrible earthquake and resulting tsunami that have devastated Japan, the only good news is that anyone exposed to excess radiation from the nuclear power plants is now probably much less likely to get cancer.” We shouldn’t worry about the damaged Japanese reactors because they’ll make the locals healthier”

She refers to the hormesis effect, the effect that under certain conditions low doses of certain chemicals/drugs can have opposite effects to high doses in certain experimental models. See PZ Myers at Pharyngula for an excellent dissection of this nonsense.

And -help!- here is a post of a CAM doctor who advises people from the US to immediately take the following (because Japanese Nuclear Radiation Plume Has Reached the United States):

Ample amounts of necessary minerals such as magnesium, iodine, selenium, zinc, and others, Saunas, both infrared and far-infrared, Raising core energy levels with botanical formulas, Supporting and improving individual capacities to mobilize and eliminate toxins, Therapeutic Clays to remove positively charged particles, Solum uliginosum products from Uriel Pharmacy – also available directly from us etcetera.

Thus various examples of misinformation by seemingly well-informed scientists, experts & doctors.

Perhaps this is the downside of Social Media. Twitter and Facebook are very well suited to spread the news fast, but they can also easily spread false information or hoaxes fast-via “your friends”. It is important to check where the news actually comes from (which can be hard if one misuses logo’s and institutions) and if the writer has any biases pro or con nuclear power. But an other disadvantage of Social Media is that we hurry through it by speed-reading.

Besides real lies there is also something called bias.

I have to admit that I have a bias against nuclear power. I was teenager when learned of the Club of Rome, I was in my twenties when the Dutch held large Peace Marches with “Ban the bomb” placards, I was in my thirties when the Dutch cattle had to be kept in stables and we couldn’t eat spinach, because of the Chernobyl nuclear fallout. At the University, my professor in Physics spend one or two lectures talking about the danger of nuclear power and the connection with poverty and the arms race, instead of teaching the regular stuff. During environmental studies I learned about the pitfalls of other energy sources as well. My conclusion was we had to use our energy sources well and I decided to use my feet instead of driving a car (a decision I sometimes regret).

The opinion piece by By David Ropeik “Beware the fear of nuclear….FEAR!” in Scientific American seems a little biased in the opposite direction. This guest post, written soon after the trouble at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, mainly stresses that:

“… the world is facing the risk of getting the risk of nuclear power wrong, and raising the overall risk to public and environmental health far more in the process.”

As if nuke-o-noia that is the most worrying at the moment. He also stresses that in addition to being actually physically hazardous, nuclear power has some psychological characteristics (odorless, man-made) that make it particularly frightening: It is all in the mind, isn’t it?

I do get his point though and agree as to the quiet danger of fossil fuels and the risk of being too dependent upon other countries for energy. But as a commenter said: two wrongs don’t make a right. And isn’t there something like renewable resources and energy saving?

Furthermore the nuclear problems in Japan do show what happens if a country is reliant on nuclear power. The lack of electricity causes great problems with infrastructure. This not only affects Tokyo commuters, but a lack of fuel, electricity, food and the cold weather also hampers the aid efforts. There might also be insufficient fuel to evacuate refugees from the exclusion area, a problem that will grow if the government has to widen the evacuation zone around the plant again (Nature News). Not the most important, but  the japanese quake will likely affect our supply of gadgets and other industries, like the auto-industry.

So we now have polarized discussions between pro- and contra- nuke movements. And it has become an irrational political issue. China has suspended approval for all new nuclear power stations, Germany’s government has announced a safety review of its 17 nuclear power plants, and is temporarily shutting down the seven oldest and the Dutch Government will take the Japanese experience into account when deciding on the Dutch nuclear power program.

It is surprising, that minds have changed overnight: all (potential) risks of nuclear plants were long known.

Regarding misinformation, TEPC, the utility that runs the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and supplies power for Tokyo, has a long history of disinformation: here were many incidents (200) which were covered up  (Dutch: see NRC-handelsblad, Thursday 2011-03-17; non-official forum here).

There are also signals that the Japanese government, and even the IAEA (according to a Russian nuclear accident specialist) aren’t or weren’t as transparent as one would like them to be. The government seems to downplay the risks and is late with information. The actions are not consistent with what is said: Everything was said to be in control, while people were being evacuated etc. Also the American analysis of the severity of the nuclear was much graver than that of the Japanese government. When the Japanese advise to keep a distance of 30 km, the United States and the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office recommend that citizens stay at least 80 km from the nuclear plant. (Discussed in the NY-Times and The Great Beyond (Nature).
The last days the Japanese government has become more open. It publishes The Japanese science ministry, MEXT, has  its publishes the radiation levels throughout the region and gives more background info about the health risks (source: The Great Beyond). Today, it has also raised the warning level from 4 to 5 on a 7-level international. Outside experts have said for days that this disaster was worse than that at Three Mile Island — which was rated a 5 but released far less radiation outside the plant than Fukushima Daiichi already has. Level 4 means only “local effects”.
The Prime Minister’s Office of Japan now also has an official English account on Twitter: @JPN_PMO.

But now for reliable information? Where can we get it? What about the health risks? Again, I’m no expert in this field, but the following information at least helped me to get an idea about the situation and the actual danger.

  1. It looks like that the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant is getting out of control (Nature News, March 16th).
  2. It is possible that it the will not be confined to leaks of radioactivity and explosions, but that a nuclear meltdown may occur.
  3. A nuclear meltdown or nuclear reactor explosion is a grave event, but is NOT a nuclear explosion. As explained at Sciencebase:  “There is a risk of particles of radioactive material entering the atmosphere or the ocean, but this does not amount to the impact of an actual nuclear explosion.” Thus even in a worst-case scenario the effects are not as severe as a nuclear explosion.
  4. One major difference with Chernobyl is that radioactivity at Fukushima remains largely contained within the reactor and that we know the problems from the start (not surprised by fall-out).
  5. Still radioactive fumes leak from the power plant. March 16th there was “an alarmingly high dose rate of 0.08 millisieverts (mSv) per hour, 25 kilometres away from the plant (Nature News). March 17th is 17 mSv/hr, 30 kilometres northwest of the reactor. There are also reports of .012 mSv/hr in Fukushima City, 60 km away from the plant. (The Great Beyond). Sanya Gupta monitored that his radiation levels quadrupled, even in Tokyo (see CNN-video).
  6. The time of exposure is as important as the dose. Thus exposure to a  4 to 10 times higher radiation than normal during a couple of days, poses little extra health risk. But if you would receive 4 to 10 times more radiation than usual during months or years it could pose a health risk (cumulative effect). On the other hand peak doses recorded at Fukushima of 400 mSv per hour are enough to induce radiation sickness in about two hours’ time ((The Great Beyond)
  7. Radiation sickness is a (more or less) acute effect of irradiation. It can occur in the immediate surroundings of the radioactive leak. A single dose of 1000 mSv causes radiation sickness and nausea but not death. But 6000 mSv (chernobyl-workers) kills people within a month (see picture in The Guardian)
  8. Over the long term, exposure to radiation, may increase the risk of developing cancer. An exposure rate of 100 mSv/yr is considered the threshold at which cancer rates begin to increase.
  9. To put this into perspective: we are all exposed to 2 mSv natural irradiation per year, one full body CT-scan gives 10 mSv and a flight from New York – Tokyo polar route gives 9 mSv.
  10. The most worrisome on the reported releases of radioactive material in Japan are radioactive cesium-137 (gamma emitter, high energy radiation, penetrating deep) and Iodine-131, a beta emitter (can be easily shielded, dangerous when ingested or inhaled).
  11. Iodine-131 has a short half life of 8 days, but is dangerous when it is absorbed, i.e. through contaminated food and milk. It will accumulate in the thyroid and can cause (mostly non-lethal) thyroid cancer. An easy form of protection is potassium iodide (KI), but this should only be taken by people in the emergency zone, because it can cause serious adverse effects and should not be taken unnecessarily. (For more info see CDC).
  12. Over the long term, the big threat to human health is cesium-137, which has a half-life of 30 years. It is cesium-137 that still contaminates much land in Ukraine around the Chernobyl reactor. Again it can enter the body via food, notably milk.

Note: this is a short summary of what I’ve read. Please go to official sites to get more detailed scientific and medical information.

There are several informative charts or FAQ:

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9 responses

19 03 2011
Bart

Good, nuanced (genuanceerd) post. Thanks.

20 03 2011
Bram Hengeveld

Good post, as usual. But the photo you mentioned, is said to be taken from a movie (Aftershock) according to a comment on the Facebookpage. I Googled and that seems plausible.

20 03 2011
laikaspoetnik

Bart & Bram thanks for your comments.

Bram, yes, you are right. This comment appeared after I had finished this part of the post. But it illustrates once again how easy it is to be misinformed by social media.

20 03 2011
Bram Hengeveld

But it illustrates once again how easy it is to be misinformed by social media.

Indeed!

22 03 2011
Grand Rounds Volume 7, Number 26: The Emotional Edition - Better Health

[...] (aka Laika at Laika’s MedLibLog) does an excellent job reviewing the hysteria and misinformation surrounding the recent Japanese earthquake. She argues [...]

22 03 2011
KC
23 03 2011
Kaleidoscope #3: 2011 Wk 12 « Laika's MedLibLog

[...] Edition” where posts are organized into emotion categories. My post about the hysteria and misinformation surrounding the recent Japanese earthquake is placed under [...]

15 04 2011
Friday Foolery #39. Peer Review LOL, How to Write a Comment & The Best Rejection Letter Evvah! « Laika's MedLibLog

[...] Frantic Friday #37. The aftermaths of the japanese earthquake tsunami with emphasis on misinformatio… (laikaspoetnik.wordpress.com) [...]

26 07 2011
Ka Chito

Please send me free new posts on expert and authoritative predictions of an ending world. Thanks

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