Fukushima fallout: Should you eat Pacific fish?

A worker sorts fish caught aboard his boat in the waters off Iwaki, about 25 miles south of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The goal is to measure radiation levels of fish caught in the waters off Fukushima.

Is eating fish from the Pacific Ocean safe after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant meltdown in 2011? So far, the answer is maybe, maybe not.

Should fish consumers be concerned about Pacific fish doused in radiation from the meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in 2011? The answer to that question can be frightening or heartening, depending on what you read and whom you talk to.

Fukushima radiation in Pacific fish: Map locates Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, Iwaki, Japan and the Philippines.MCT

Radioactive isotopes from Fukushima — both the shorter-lived cesium-134 and the longer-lived, but naturally occurring, cesium-137 — have shown up in varying levels in seafood from the Pacific, according to Phys.org.

While consumer watch groups and scientists debate what is considered a safe level of radioactivity in fish, Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority chairman, Shunichi Tanaka, says that the impact on the ocean due to the leakage from Fukushima isn’t yet known and needs to be monitored more carefully.

In an interview with Reuters, researcher Daniel Madigan of Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Station said tests last year of Pacific Bluefin tuna in San Diego waters showed elevated levels of radioactivity. Although cesium-134 breaks down in about two years in the ocean, it doesn't sink right away to the sea floor, he explained. Instead, it free-floats from the surface down to the bottom. The tuna, which spawn off the coasts of Japan and the Philippines, swam through that radioactive during their migration to the west coast and absorbed the radiation either through their gills or by eating other creatures that were already radioactive, according to Madigan.

Related: South Korea bans Japan fish over radiation fears

"I wouldn't tell anyone what's safe to eat or what's not safe to eat," Madigan told Reuters. "It's become clear that some people feel that any amount of radioactivity, in their minds, is bad and they'd like to avoid it. But compared to what's there naturally ... and what's established as safety limits, it's not a large amount at all."

Indeed, a recent piece in the Los Angeles Times noted that marine researchers have reported that the levels of radioactivity present in fish such as the Pacific Bluefin tuna are very low, comparable to doses one might receive from other foods, medical procedures or air travel. Deep-dwelling fish, such as cod, flounder, sole, halibut and pollock, caught in waters surrounding the plant still show high levels of contamination, which was a bit of a mystery to scientists until the recent announcement of continued spill of radioactive water into the ocean off the Fukushima plant.

Because ocean currents disperse radiation far and wide via giant eddies and whirlpools, the full impact on our ocean food supply may not be known for years.Scientists do know that the plume of radioactivity from the meltdown is making its way across the Pacific and they expect it to hit sometime in February 2014. The radiation will continue to travel for at least 10 years.

An intensive study done by the University of South Carolina and University of Paris-Sud and published in Biological Reviews in 2012 concluded that even low levels of radioactivity are damaging to human and animal health.

"With the levels of contamination that we have seen as a result of nuclear power plants, especially in the past, and even as a result of Chernobyl and Fukushima and related accidents, there's an attempt in the industry to downplay the doses that the populations are getting, because maybe it's only one or two times beyond what is thought to be the natural background level," said one of the study's authors, University of South Carolina co-author Timothy Mousseau. "But they're assuming the natural background levels are fine." The study showed emphatically that they are not.

Fish caught in waters near the accident are off-limits for consumption. Japan had banned fishing of the coast after the accident, and with TEPCO's (the Japanese power company responsible for the Fukushima disaster) recent announcement that more than 300 tons of radioactive water have been leaking into the Pacific Ocean with no signs of containment, the ban has been reinstated. TEPCO has now shifted cleanup responsibility to the Japanese government.

And it's clear that many people do feel that any amount of radioactivity is worrisome. Social media recently exploded over a conspiracy-theory blog post connecting contamination from Fukushima Daiichi’s meltdown in 2011 to all sorts of environmental disasters, both local and far-flung. And while the post was largely discredited, some insist there is reason to be concerned.

The FDA and the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) continue to screen all foods brought in from Japan, with radiation detection equipment stationed in "air and sea ports, mail facilities, and elsewhere to ensure safety." Shortly after the meltdown, the FDA issued an alert around all imported food from Japan, not just fish, taking a page from the Japanese government's strict plans of removal of contaminated food from the market.

Related: Radiation at record high levels near Fukushima tanks

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