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Scientists looking at monitor

Richmond radiological lab takes lead after Japanese earthquake

on April 8, 2011

After the cooling systems of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan were damaged in last month’s earthquake and tsunami, laboratory scientists at the California Public Health Laboratory in Richmond have played a key role in monitoring milk and air in California for radiation. The lab in Richmond is the only state laboratory capable of conducting radiological testing on environmental samples.

In the Radiologic Health laboratories of the huge compound on Marina Bay Parkway, scientists prepare and test air and milk samples. Behind lab doors that usually do not open for the public, researchers in white lab coats use different radiation detection devices to analyze samples from nine air monitoring stations located across the state and one milk sampling location.

So far, scientists at the lab have detected small amounts of radiation in milk samples taken from San Luis Obispo County. The analysis of last week’s milk sample shows trace amounts of the nuclear isotope Iodine 131, which does not naturally occur in the environment.

Usually, the milk tests from Luis Obispo County are used to search for accidental releases from the nearby Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. Currently, however, spokesman Michael Sicilia, assistant deputy director at the Office of Public Affairs for California’s Department for Public Health (CDPH), says that radiation tests are being done in relation to the suspected partial nuclear meltdown in the Fukushima nuclear plant. He says that the CDPH has been consistently monitoring for Iodine 131, but had not found it in the environment prior to the events in Japan.

But, he said, the levels of Iodine 131 detected are very low. Put in perspective, the detected amounts of radiation found in the sample from San Luis Obispo are 1,395 times less than the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s standard for public health concern. Sicilia says that most people are most likely exposed to more radiation in their daily life resulting from natural sources of radiation such as radon gas and man made radiation such as medical testing.

“We’re not concerned from a public health standpoint, but we will continue to watch it as vigilantly as possible,” said Sicilia.

Testing milk can provide one of the first indicators that radiation has seeped into an environment. “Radiation has a tendency to get into the food chain rather quickly and milk is one of the fastest ways” that occurs, explains Sicilia. “That happens through cows breathing the air, drinking the water and then processing it into their milk.”

Right after speculation began about a partial meltdown of fuel rods in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the Richmond lab upped its testing frequency of milk and air samples. Milk samples are now being tested once a week instead of once a month, and air sample analysis has been increased from once a week to every 48 hours.

In addition to the elevated level of Iodine 131 in milk samples, the researchers have detected only trace amounts of radiation in air samples, which are below the average amount from natural sources in California. The only mentionable finding, says Sicilia, were traces of Cesium isotopes at the non-detectable level in air samples very early on.

Along with the CDPH, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is continuously testing drinking water and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is monitoring food products.

The CDPH has set up a phone hotline for concerned citizens. It can be reached Monday – Friday, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m., at (916) 341-3947. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are also available 24 hours a day at 1-800-CDC-INFO (1-800-232-4636).

In addition, a CDPH FAQ about radiation as well as the latest test results from nine environmental monitoring stations in California are available on the Internet.

Sicilia said that the lab will continue testing with higher frequencies  as long as necessary.

Updated April 12, 2011: “Sicilia says that most people are most likely exposed to more radiation in their daily life resulting from microwave and cell phone usage” was changed to “Sicilia says that most people are most likely exposed to more radiation in their daily life resulting from natural sources of radiation such as radon gas and man-made radiation such as medical testing”. Richmond Confidential regrets the error. More information on radiation exposure in daily life can be found on the EPA’s website “Radiation Doses in perspective“.

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Richmond Confidential is an online news service produced by the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism for, and about, the people of Richmond, California. Our goal is to produce professional and engaging journalism that is useful for the citizens of the city.

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