Federal and state officials have been staunchly insistent that radioactive fallout from Japan’s nuclear reactor crisis will not reach California and the rest of the West Coast.
But there’s been little ability for the public to gain more detailed information on airborne radiation levels because data from federal monitoring stations are difficult to obtain and interpret.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which maintains RadNet, the largest network of radiation monitoring stations in the country, including two in the Bay Area, provides updated results to the public on a quarterly basis. Near real-time data is available through a registered site, the EPA’s Central Data Exchange, but requires expertise to interpret. It provides information such as wind direction, flow rate, and gamma energy ranges. San Francisco’s data points were updated on Thursday.
An international monitoring network of 60 stations operated by the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treat Organization (CTBTO) is generating extensive data, but has no mandate to make the data publicly available for the purposes of nuclear accidents.
The need for more immediate information has resulted in the public taking matters into its own hands. Some people have been stocking up on potassium iodide and Geiger counters. Arizona-based GeigerCounters.com is seeing a run on Geiger counter devices and because of the backlog has announced it will take months now to fill orders. Geiger counters on the site cost in the $300 to $700 range.
The crowd-sourcing of radiation tracking is also filling the void. The same company that owns GeigerCounters.com, Mineralab, runs Radiationnetwork.com, which advertises itself as a grassroots effort providing the “first website where the average citizen … can see what radiation levels are anywhere in the USA at any time.” (So far, levels look normal in San Francisco and elsewhere).
Tim Flanegin, founder of the seven-year-old Radiationnetwork.com says his site has been getting a lot of attention since Friday, when the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan.
“There’s a hunger based on the the lack of information from officials, and people we normally rely on, as well distrust of information from those officials,” said Flanegin, based in Prescott, Arizona.
He said the volunteer network has about 200 members, but only 10 of them are continuously uploading data. His company sells not only the devices, but also the software to process and upload the data to the site. He expects more to participate following the events in Japan.
“I would say this class of new interested people we’ve gotten since Friday, most of them are concerned about their personal health and safety and they’re frantically searching for other information out there to give them some indication of radiation levels,” Flanegin said.
The California Department of Public Health also runs a radiological branch that routinely tests air, water and the food supply. But according to the San Jose Mercury News, health department spokesman Michael Sicilia said the department is checking the monitors once a month, same as always, and waiting for federal officials to instruct it for further testing.
Sicilia told Way Out West on Thursday that the previous statement was inaccurate. “We test once a week for air. We may increase that.” He went on to stress, “ We are unconcerned that there is any danger.”
Victoria Schlesinger contributed to this story.