Thursday, March 24, 2011

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Radioactive Water in Japan: Tokyo Watches What It Drinks

Images of bottled waterImage via Wikipedia
Tokyo is not one of those cities where I normally worry about drinking the water. In fact, there's something quite delightful about a country in Asia where I can freely swig from the tap. But this afternoon, as I filled up a glass at my hotel, I hesitated. It wasn't like what I was looking for could be detected. Radioactive isotopes are, as we all know by now, colorless, tasteless and odorless. I put the glass down. Maybe I wasn't that thirsty after all.
On March 23, the Tokyo government announced that the level of radioactivity in the city's water, caused by radioactive iodine emanating from the quake- and tsunami-damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant 149 miles (240 km) to the north, had exceed safe levels for infants. I am not an infant. Nor do I panic easily. But like many Japanese who have been determined not to let trace amounts of radiation get to them, this news spooked me. Indeed, on Thursday, anxious Tokyo citizens cleaned bottled water off shelves, leaving only bottles of expensive Perrier in some stores. (See TIME's exclusive pictures of the devastation in Japan.)
As the Daiichi plant has continued to infect the region's air and water, Tokyo citizens have gone through cycles of alarm and ennui. A few days ago, when government officials announced trace amounts of radiation in milk and vegetables from farms not far from the nuclear plant, people grabbed whatever milk they could find in stores that was produced before the radiation tests ran positive. Dairy disappeared. But now milk and yogurt are easier to find in Tokyo, as officials have assured residents that the dairy they're consuming is safe. (Milk and certain vegetable exports from the affected region near the Daiichi plant have been stopped, easing fears.) The milk run has given way to the water scare.
What's interesting to me about Tokyo's reaction to the radioactivity issue is the level of trust that locals essentially have for their government, even if there is a reflexive unease about radiation given Japan's history as the only nation ever to have been attacked by atomic weapons. Compare Japan to China, where vague rumors of Japanese radioactivity making their way west toward the Middle Kingdom prompted a massive run on iodized salt. Why? Because people thought the iodine in the salt could counteract a radioactive haze. The assumption was wholly incorrect, and the whole scene became even more ridiculous when the iodized salt run in turn sparked a run on noniodized salt. The lesson, though, was this: Chinese people don't trust their government. Therefore, stocking up on whatever remedy they can find is a perfectly natural reaction in a country where citizens believe they must fend for themselves. (See Japan's history of massive earthquakes.)
By contrast, Japanese tend to trust that their health inspectors are doing their job. And when the issue is something as basic as water, eschewing it completely from one's diet is all but impossible. I bet that many of the Japanese drinking bottled water at ramen noodle soup restaurants on Thursday weren't thinking about the fact that the broth they were consuming was probably made with potentially tainted water. In fact, I was halfway through my own bowl of soup when that thought occurred to me. I finished the bowl.
By late Thursday, Tokyo health officials had announced that the amount of radioactive iodine in one major water purification plant had dropped to levels safe even for infants. The run on water in Tokyo will likely soon abate, unless levels spike even higher. (By contrast, the China salt scare took far longer to calm down.) In fact, the general consensus in Tokyo appears to be not only that the government should be trusted on these matters but also that foreigners are making too big a deal out of all this radioactivity stuff. Many Tokyo residents were shocked by how quickly a large expatriate corps fled the capital after the onset of the nuclear crisis. It was wounding for a city that prides itself on hospitality and livability. Now there's a paranoid strain of thought, particularly among some conservative Japanese media, that the outside world is obsessing about each radioactive becquerel as some sneaky way to hurt Japan's image. (See pictures of objects found in the rubble of Japan's quake.)
The problem is that the Japanese government doesn't have a spotless history when it comes to informing the public about potential health risks. Indeed, in some cases, the bureaucracy's reaction has been to deny, deny, deny before finally admitting that maybe something had gone awry. In fact, Prime Minister Naoto Kan made his name in the mid-1990s when he fully exposed the fact that the Health Ministry had covered up the administering of HIV-tainted blood to hemophiliacs. (See more pictures of Japan's earthquake.)
That's not to say the government is fooling people now. Indeed, with the constant tests and calls for vigilance, Tokyo health officials appear to be bending over backward to show the populace that they are monitoring the situation carefully. On Thursday, Tokyo government workers began delivering bottled water to all 80,000 local families with infants, as promised by Kan. About 240,000 bottles were scheduled to be delivered on Thursday, according to Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara. The exercise is set to be repeated on Friday. If radiation levels creep back up, then the government may even import bottled water to meet the demand. But who wants to cook with Perrier?
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Tokyo shoppers clean store shelves of basic goods

Reuters/Carlos Barria
A worker prepares to load boxes containing bottles of water onto a truck to distribute to households with infants, at a warehouse in Tokyo Thursday, M AP – A worker prepares to load boxes containing bottles of water onto a truck to distribute to households …
TOKYO – Nearly two weeks of rolling blackouts, distribution problems and contamination fears prompted by a leaking, tsunami-damaged nuclear plant have left shelves stripped bare of some basic necessities in stores across Tokyo. Some people are even turning to the city's ubiquitous vending machines to find increasingly scarce bottles of water.
At the source of the anxiety — the overheated, radiation-leaking nuclear plant — there was yet another setback Thursday as two workers were injured when they stepped into radiation-contaminated water. The two were treated at a hospital.
Supplies of bottled water grew scarce in Tokyo, one day after city officials warned that the level of radioactive iodine in the tap water was more than twice what is considered safe for babies to drink. Tests conducted Thursday showed the levels in the city's water fell to acceptable limits for infants, but they were up in neighboring regions.
Frightened Tokyo residents hoping to stock up on bottled water and other goods flocked to shops across the city, some of which tried to prevent hoarding by imposing buying limits.
"The first thought was that I need to buy bottles of water," said Reiko Matsumoto, a real estate agent and mother of a 5-year-old, who rushed to a nearby store to stock up on supplies. "I also don't know whether I can let her take a bath."
The shortages were mainly limited to basic staples, such as rice, instant noodles and milk. Vegetables, meat and tofu, meanwhile, were readily available in most places.
Japan has been grappling with an avalanche of miseries that began with a massive, 9.0-magnitude earthquake on March 11. That triggered a violent tsunami, which ravaged the northeast coast, killed an estimated 18,000 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless. The quake and tsunami also damaged the critical cooling system at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, which overheated and began spewing radiation into the environment.
Workers have been struggling to get the cooling system operating again, but their efforts have been hampered by explosions, fires and radiation scares. Lighting was restored Thursday to the central control room at Unit 1 for the first time since the quake and tsunami.
But two workers were hospitalized after stepping into contaminated water while laying electrical cables in one unit, nuclear and government officials said. The water seeped over the top of their boots and onto their legs, said Takashi Kurita, spokesman for plant owner Tokyo Electric Power Co.
The two likely suffered "beta ray burns," Tokyo Electric said, citing doctors. They tested at radiation levels between 170 to 180 millisieverts, well below the maximum 250 millisieverts allowed for workers, said Fumio Matsuda, a spokesman for the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency.
The men will be transferred to a radiology medical institute Friday, said Hidehiko Nishiyama, another nuclear agency spokesman. Their injuries were not life-threatening.
More than two dozen people have been injured trying to bring the plant, located 140 miles (220 kilometers) northeast of Tokyo, under control.
The death toll from the earthquake and tsunami continued to rise, meanwhile, with more than 9,800 bodies counted and more than 17,500 people listed as missing. Those tallies may overlap, but police from one of the hardest-hit prefectures, Miyagi, estimate that the deaths will top 15,000 in that region alone.
The crisis has stoked fears about the safety of Japan's food and water supply. Radiation has been found in raw milk, seawater and 11 kinds of vegetables, including broccoli, cauliflower and turnips, grown in areas around the plant.
The U.S. and Australia halted imports of Japanese dairy and produce from the region, Hong Kong said it would require that Japan perform safety checks on meat, eggs and seafood, and Canada said it would upgrade controls on imports of Japanese food products. Singapore, too, has banned the sale of milk, produce, meat and seafood from areas near the plant.
Concerns also spread to Europe. In Iceland, officials said they measured trace amounts of radioactive iodine in the air but assured residents it was "less than a millionth" of levels found in Europe in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster — the world's worst nuclear accident.
Radioactive iodine is short-lived, with a half-life of eight days — the length of time it takes for half of it to break down harmlessly. However, experts say infants are particularly vulnerable to radioactive iodine, which can cause thyroid cancer.
In Tokyo, government spokesman Yukio Edano pleaded for calm over the water contamination, and said the government was considering importing bottled water from other countries to cover any shortages. Officials urged residents to avoid panicked stockpiling and the city began distributing 240,000 bottles — enough to give each of the 80,000 children under age 1 three small bottles of water.
New readings Thursday showed the city's tap water was back to levels acceptable for infants, but the relief was tempered by elevated levels of the isotope in two neighboring prefectures: Chiba and Saitama. A city in a third prefecture, just south of the plant, also showed high levels of radioactive iodine in tap water, officials said.
Tap water in Kawaguchi City in Saitama, north of Tokyo, contained 210 becquerels of radioactive iodine — well above the 100 becquerels considered safe for babies but below the 300-becquerel level for adults, Health Ministry official Shogo Misawa said.
In Chiba prefecture, the water tested high for radiation in two separate areas, said water safety official Kyoji Narita. The government there warned families in 11 cities in Chiba not to give infants tap water.
"The high level of iodine was due to the nuclear disaster," Narita said. "There is no question about it."
Radiation levels also tested dangerously high in Hitachi in Ibaraki prefecture, about 70 miles (120 kilometers) south of the Fukushima plant, city water official Toshifumi Suzuki said, adding that officials were distributing bottled water.
The limits refer to sustained consumption rates, and officials said parents should stop using tap water for baby formula, although it was OK for infants to consume small amounts.
Despite the appeals, shelves were bare in many stores across Tokyo.
Maruetsu supermarket in the city center sought to impose buying limits on specific items to prevent hoarding: only one carton of milk per family, one 5-kilogram (11-pound) bag of rice, one package of toilet paper, one pack of diapers. Similar notices at some drugs stores told women they could only purchase two feminine hygiene items at a time.
Maruetsu spokeswoman Kayoko Kano acknowledged that the earthquake and tsunami resulted in delays of some products.
Some frustrated shoppers have turned to the city's many vending machines as an alternative. The machines are found everywhere in the city and one can feature about three dozen different beverages — ranging from hot coffee and green tea to power drinks and juice. A 500-milliliter bottle of imported water costs about 100 yen (about $1.25).
A spokesman for Procter & Gamble Japan said its plant was fully operational but that rolling blackouts in Tokyo may be affecting distribution. "Consumers are nervous, and they may be buying up supplies," Noriyuki Endo added.
Worse hardships continued in the frigid, tsunami-struck northeast. Some 660,000 households still do not have water, the government said. Electricity has not been restored to some 209,000 homes, Tohoku Electric Power Co. said. Damage is estimated at $309 billion, making it the most costly natural disaster on record.
In one bright spot of economic news, Toyota Motor Corp. — which had suspended production due to damage to suppliers' factories and power shortages in the quake zone — said it will soon resume production of the Prius and two other hybrid models.
But rival Honda Motor Co. said the suspension of car production at its Saitama and Suzuka factories will be extended to April 3.
The economic woes spawned by the disasters were especially painful for farmers in the region near the nuclear plant.
Sumiko Matsuno, a 65-year-old farmer in Fukushima, spent Thursday frantically harvesting vegetables from her fields.
"We are digging up all our carrots and onions as fast as we can. We can't sell them but we need them ourselves for food," she said. "We are really worried about our future. If this goes on, it is going to really hurt us."



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