Public health officials are trying to calm fears that B.C. residents may become contaminated by radiation carried here from the nuclear disaster underway in Japan.
The B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) said Wednesday no abnormal radiation levels have so far been detected by an international network of monitoring sites put in place along the entire West Coast in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident.
“We do not expect any health risk following the nuclear reactor releases in Japan,” said provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall.
That hasn’t stopped some people from snapping up supplies of potassium iodide tablets, which can be used to neutralize the harmful effects of radioactive iodine, including thyroid cancer.
BCCDC officials said the potassium iodide tablets would only help people exposed to higher levels of radiation within 30 kilometres of the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, where explosions or coolant failures at multiple reactors threaten to cause a meltdown.
Kendall urged pharmacies not to dispense or stockpile the pills after an apparent run on them by spooked shoppers.
Even if there is a major release of radiation into the atmosphere from northeast Japan, Kendall said the particles would be so widely dispersed on their five- to six-day jet stream trip to North America that it’s unlikely they could pose a health risk.
“All the scenarios say that for us, because of the distance we are away, no they would not be posing a significant health risk to British Columbians.”
He cautioned against comparing Chernobyl, where the reactor fuel burned and sent large amounts of long-lasting radiation across Europe, to the Japanese reactors, which have containment facilities and are less likely to release large amounts of long-lasting radioactive isotopes.
Metro Vancouver Board Chair Lois Jackson said she wants a better picture of the potential threat in a worst-case scenario after the issue was raised at a meeting of the region’s mayors Wednesday morning.
“The outcome of a disaster of this sort could be very widespread,” she said. “The cloud rises up into the jet stream and what goes up must come down.
“My concern is that we are kept up to date honestly so we’re not as a nation scrambling if the worst was to happen.”
Jackson wants to find out from the federal government precisely where and how many radiation monitoring stations are located in B.C.
“It’s concerning to me that we don’t have that information.”
Neither Metro Vancouver’s air quality monitoring network nor the provincial government have any capability to measure wind-borne radiation that could come across the Pacific if nuclear reactors in Japan melt down.
Air quality planning manager Roger Quan said Metro monitors various types of pollutants at stations across the Lower Mainland, but they aren’t equipped to detect radiation.
Kendall said there are four federally run sites on Vancouver Island and one in the Lower Mainland that continuously sample for radiation and data can also be drawn from other international stations in the Pacific at islands like Guam.
SFU nuclear chemist Jean-Claude Brodovitch said he agrees with Kendall’s assessment of the risks, adding there is no sign of radiation reaching B.C.
“We have our own equipment we monitor with and we haven’t seen anything,” he said.
Although small amounts of radioactive iodine were detected in plants such as seaweed off the North American coast after Chernobyl, Brodovitch said that doesn’t equate to any significant human risk.
“There could be transportation of some dust in the atmosphere,” he said. “But when it gets around the globe it’s extremely diluted. After 7,000 kilometres, it would not be a real concern.”
Asked about the potential that radiation could enter the food chain, potentially via contaminated crops, Brodovitch said that was a possibility, but only in Japan and the local area around it.
“If there’s deposition in the ocean, there would be some impact on seafood,” added Kendall, who predicted authorities will be vigilant about protecting Canadian consumers.
“We’re going to see a lot of monitoring of foodstuffs in areas around the plume and in the ocean,” he said. “But that’s a longer-term concern.”