Radioactivity – Japan’s invisible enemy within
TOKYO BEFORE March 11, 2011, procuring food for an average Japanese household was a pretty straight-forward affair. Following long-established traditions, a housewife — it is, still, almost always a woman in charge — did her best to ensure that every product brought to the table could be traced to Japanese soil or waters.
This, it was widely held, was the best way to avoid eating fish, meat or produce tainted with dangerous contaminants.
Chinese imports were to be avoided whenever possible.
The accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, unleashed by a devastating earthquake and tsunami, shattered this ageold faith in the purity of Japanese produce.
Even the country’s most cherished and emblematic staple, rice, has been tainted in a way that was unimaginable before March 11.
The very products — many of them cultural icons — that had always been deeply reassuring precisely because of their native origins, were suddenly perceived as potentially poisonous, transformed overnight from sources of comfort to objects of fear.
Nuclear radiation is scary stuff. A quarter century after Chernobyl, and more than 65 years after atomic bombs laid waste to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, fatally sickening thousands not killed outright, even unfounded fears of radioactive contamination can spark panic.
Japan’s catastrophe emptied pharmacies in North America and Europe of antiradiation pills despite reassurances from all manner of experts that the danger was nil.
By contrast, there are any number of agents — cancer, AIDS and auto accidents, to name three — that claim millions of victims every year but do not inspire that same kind of terror. People still smoke, practise unsafe sex and climb into their cars every day.
So why is nuclear radiation so fearsome, and what determines how we react when faced with a threat, imagined or real? The answer is complex and laced with contradictions, starting with the fact that most people don’t even think twice about absorbing radiation doses delivered through medical X-rays or scans.
But put the words “nuclear” and “accident” together, and suddenly the idea that sub-atomic particles can slip through our skin to damage inner tissue, or seep into the food we eat and the air we breathe, sets spines shuddering.
“Anything that can penetrate inside our bodies fills us with apprehension, and triggers an ancestral or ancient fear,” said Herve Chneiweiss, a neurologist at the Centre for Psychiatry and Neuroscience at Universite Paris Descartes.
When the culprit is invisible, odourless, tasteless — beyond, in other words, the reach of perception — that angst is magnified even more.
The partial meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant released caesium particles and other radioactive elements into the air, soil and sea.
Unlike harmful iodine 131, which disappears in matter of days, caesium 137 has a “half-life” of 30 years and lingers even longer.
Radioactive discharge from the crippled power station fell directly on crops and vegetables, and worked its way into the food chain when fish or animals in affected areas consumed contaminated plants.