I've been reading up on the Fukushima nuclear meltdown and its effects it had on the environment. The iodine-131 initially released from the incident decayed after 8 days, but other isotopes such as cesium-137 and strontium-90 have a half-life of 28.7 and 30.2 years (about 300 years to completely decay).

Apparently, large quanties of cesium-137 were found in neighbouring countries as well as in seafood near Japan.

Now, for something like nuclear isotopes, not having the required knowledge can lead someone to fear something that might be harmless (or confirm some doubts about the issue), hence why I am here.

From my research on scientific websites and different governmental regulations, I found out that food and water in Japan have a legal limit as to how much cesium-137 a food item can contain. Especially since cesium-137 ressembles potassium and therefore being easily taken up by the body, this is worrying.

To my understanding, the way a radioactive isotope creates havoc in the body of an individual is that:

  1. It ressembles a normal element we usually consume, like iodine, potassium for cesium-137 and calcium for strontium-90.
  2. The body digests it and it is stored in the body.
  3. It emits radation for a certain period of time, anywhere from 8 days for Iodine-131 to years for cesium-137.
  4. The prolonged radioactivity from these isotopes causes cancerous cells to occur.
  5. A tumour or other form of cancer develops.

If this is what happens for isotopes like cesium-137, how can it be possible to eat food or drink water containing ANY cesium whatsoever? Sure, the radiation isn't so bad, but what is important to take into consideration is that this is internal and highly centralized radiation. This is a completely different thing to external radiation.

For my questions about the topic, I would like to know three things (which could really put many doubts to rest).


The first is, is my understanding described above correct?

The second is, how does this affect us healthwise? We are stuck with these debris of cesium-137 and strontium-90 for the next 30 or more years, but what effect do they have on us?

If someone ingests an atom (or a small amount) of cesium-137, what affect will this have on this person's body?

Finally, for someone living in North America, how much of these debris are there, either that got here from the wind, products, food, water, etc.?

EDIT: If someone knowledgeable on the subject could answer the questions directly (highlighted by means of italics), it would be very much appreciated.

  • $\begingroup$ On Bio we encourage single, specifically targeted questions. Hence, I vote to close because it's too broad. I encourage you to reduce the stack of questions and generate one, or more separate questions. $\endgroup$
    – AliceD
    Jan 31 '16 at 18:51
  • $\begingroup$ @Christiaan Hi Christiaan. The specific questions are clearly listed at the end of the text. The text before that is simply to give the necassary and preliminary information for the questions. On the contrary, I think it adds precision. The questions alone could make the subsequent discussion rather imprecise. I highlighted the questions to make sure they can't be missed. Please do not close the discussion. Thank you. $\endgroup$
    – samseva
    Feb 1 '16 at 3:09
  • $\begingroup$ If someone knowledgeable on the subject could answer the questions directly (highlighted by means of italics), it would be very much appreciated. $\endgroup$
    – samseva
    Feb 1 '16 at 3:16
  • $\begingroup$ @samseva your last question on effects in North America is quite different and I would suggest that you remove it from this post. $\endgroup$
    Feb 2 '16 at 6:14
  • $\begingroup$ @WYSIWYG Hi Wysiwyg. I should create a new topic instead? $\endgroup$
    – samseva
    Feb 2 '16 at 6:26

Good question, but I'm not sure if anyone really knows the answers. The governments of Japan and the U.S. have both been very secretive at best, while an army of propagandists have made it very difficult to distinguish between truth and fiction.

Any health effects are likely to be too small and gradual to make headlines. For example, suppose there was a 1% increase in thyroid cancer in California due to Fukushima radiation. How could investigators prove there's a link with Fukushima radiation?

Adding to the confusion is the fact that the Pacific Ocean and neighboring land masses are being battered by more than nuclear radiation. Ongoing reports of mass dieoffs of various creatures are variously linked to radiation, global warming, pollution or unknown causes. One famous example is the "melting starfish" disease.

A lot has been written about increases in radiation in tuna. For example, see Is Tuna Safe to Eat Post Fukushima?. Some sources say we shouldn't eat any seafood from the Pacific Ocean, period. Others say "Don't worry." The propagandists particularly like to focus attention on radiation that originated from atomic bomb tests.

When investigating the amount of radiation in North America, keep in mind that the levels are presumably increasing, as contaminated water is still being dumped into the sea (hundreds of tons a day, according to some sources).

You can glean more specific information from the Internet, but it's just very hard to know how truthful or accurate it is. I wanted to write an article about this very topic but gave up in frustration. I decided it might be better to wait until there was more irrefutable evidence - like several new extinct species. ;)

You might get a better feel for the potential damage by doing some research on a similar event that has received even less publicity - the dumping of nuclear wastes off the coast of East Africa. For example, read the article You are being lied to about pirates.

Regarding the effects of cesium on human health, you can start with Public Health Statement for Cesium. But you should solicit similar information from several other sources before reaching any tentative conclusions.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the reply and especially for the Public Health Statement link. I will be reading it for sure. $\endgroup$
    – samseva
    Jan 31 '16 at 17:59
  • $\begingroup$ @samseva If this answer addressed your problem, please consider accepting it by clicking on the check mark/tick to the left of the answer, turning it green. This marks the question as resolved to your satisfaction, and awards reputation both to you and the person who answered. $\endgroup$
    – MattDMo
    Jan 31 '16 at 18:05
  • $\begingroup$ Perhaps you could supply a source for the claim that the US & Japanese governments have been "very secretive"? Being sure, of course, to distinguish deliberate secrecy from "gee, there's really nothing much happening". $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Feb 1 '16 at 1:35
  • $\begingroup$ This is anecdotal at best, but I've been in Tokyo for about 3 months and I haven't seen a single radioactive mutant yet. Since the meltdown is coming up on 5 years old, if there were going to be serious repercussions, we probably should have seen something by now. $\endgroup$
    – user137
    Feb 1 '16 at 3:47
  • $\begingroup$ Regarding secrecy, there are countless sources. Try this for starters: theguardian.com/world/2013/dec/05/… $\endgroup$ Feb 1 '16 at 4:27

Most of the question has been accurately answered by @davidblomstrom, however regarding the internal exposure to of cesium-137, through ingestion or inhalation, allows the radioactive material to be distributed in the soft tissues, especially muscle tissue, exposing these tissues to the beta particles and gamma radiation and increasing cancer risk.

Also due to the consistency of Cs-137, it comes as a crystalline powder (due to its property of binding with chlorides) which makes it "easier" to be distributed after a nuclear fallout.

If the lead containers of Cs-137 are opened, the substance inside looks like a white powder and may glow. Cs-137 from nuclear accidents or atomic bomb explosions cannot be seen and will be present in dust and debris from fallout. read more


  1. "Cesium-137." Vermont Department of Health. Vermont Department of Health. Web. 31 Jan. 2016. http://healthvermont.gov/emerg/drill/dirtybomb/facts-about-cesium137.aspx.
  2. Albertini, Dr. R. "Cesium." University of Vermont, 2002. Web. 31 Jan. 2016. http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/tp157-c3.pdf.
  • $\begingroup$ One thing I should have commented on is - I can't even think of the term right now - but cesium's propensity to accumulate in biological tissues. For example, some pesticides accumulate in animals that eat them, and animals that prey on those animals acquire even more pesticides in their tissues. I think cesium accumulates in food chains, too, but I didn't want to comment on it because the topic is a little over my head. ;) $\endgroup$ Feb 1 '16 at 0:06
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidBlomstrom Bioaccumulation $\endgroup$
    – user137
    Feb 1 '16 at 7:43

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