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“Milk Is Probably OK”

Granted, this is a quote from a consumer, not a scientist, but it accurately conveys the fear from the population over radiation:

By scientific standards, the radiation found over the last week in batches of milk on the West Coast was minuscule and, moreover, not dangerous to humans.

But the mere mention of any contamination in that most motherly of beverages still stirred concern in people like Marilyn Margulius, an interior designer from Berkeley, Calif., who called her daughter on Thursday and told her not to let her 10-year-old son drink milk.

“There is a big trust issue with this,” said Ms. Margulius, 71, who was shopping at a Whole Foods Market in Berkeley.

“The health department does not want people to panic. Milk is probably O.K., but who the heck knows?”

That’s at the Whole Foods in Berkeley and may be a tad overprotective. I don’t think there’s any health risk to American milk at this time. However, add several orders of magnitude and you’ve probably captured the mindset in Japan. They’re getting the same public assurances about milk, produce, water, and all the rest. And they aren’t trusting it much either. Especially after this news:

Radiation exceeding government safety limits has seeped into groundwater under Japan’s tsunami-crippled nuclear plant.

Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) said Iodine-131, a radioactive substance that decays in a relatively short period, was found nearly 15 meters below one of the reactors.

The groundwater contamination — 10,000 times higher than the government standard for the plant — is the latest setback at the Fukushima Daiichi complex.

Now, TEPCO has often put citizens on an emotional yo-yo by first coming out with a large figure and then dialing it back after re-testing. This claim of radiation 10,000 times above the government standard in the groundwater has been questioned already. TEPCO believes their monitoring systems may come up with errors.

But this does nothing for the public confidence. And assurances that the contaminated groundwater near the plant only flows into the ocean does just as little.

The point is that there’s a lot of fear, some unjustified and some totally justified. The credibility of TEPCO has been reduced to nothing, and the credibility of the Japanese government not a whole lot higher. When I hear that radiation has seeped into groundwater, I’m not likely to trust the “nothing to see here” approach, either.

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David Dayen

David Dayen