Radiation levels difficult for public to obtain, understand

By Alison Hawkes

A geiger counter. Photo: Nick Stanbridge on Flickr

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.

Tags: , , ,

5 Responses to Radiation levels difficult for public to obtain, understand

  1. Shelley on 03/17/2011 at 11:25 am

    Thanks so much for this information. It is the best that I have seen in searching for information on current radiation levels in San Francisco since the nuclear disaster in Japan. No other site has been as specific and clearly written as yours. Thanks again. I wish there was some place where current levels in different areas were posted.

  2. Alison on 03/17/2011 at 1:32 pm

    Thanks for your comments, Shelley. We’re going to stay on top of this issue so stay tuned.

  3. Klatu on 03/17/2011 at 2:29 pm

    Why isn’t the radiation measured in standard msv’s or mrems? Also, I dont understand the lack of concern from various health departments. If I understand correctly, the amount of radiation we are supposed to get on the west coast from the fukishima incident is around a chest x-ray (.5-1.5msv). Thats fine, but a chest xray that lasts a week, or a month at a time could be rather bad I would think.

  4. Christopher Johnson on 03/17/2011 at 7:00 pm

    Great and concise piece. Very helpful. The first paragraph should say “no harmful amounts”, rather than “not any”. That was the US position.

  5. Christopher Johnson on 03/18/2011 at 4:34 pm

    Hi, the first paragraph of your mostly informative article still contains a large factual error. I wouldn’t want to see history blemished here.

Featured Video

"It's gettin' real in the Whole Foods parking lot" by Smog and Fog Films.

Follow Us!

Recent Comments

Jerry: The statement that the SF Public Utilities Commission is developing local w...
Tree Removal Brisbane: We all love trees!...
Howard Wong: The high risk to the City's finances is a real concern---because the Federa...
MROSD: Thank you for taking an interest in the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space Di...
Mark: If we're financially responsible for the trees fronting our property, I sur...
Anon: So they didn't consider to include non-business owners? What gives?...
Ultra-Humanite: I believe it's called survival of the fittest for a reason....
Mark: Just leave mother nature alone and if that means the demise of the spotted ...
Michelle Burke: If property owners are fined $500 per tree because they failed to give near...
Chris: Reduce City workers benefits to reasonable standards and the City will sudd...

Field Notes Blog

Report: San Francisco faces water-related dangers

San Francisco  has been identified as one of the most vulnerable cities in the nation when it comes to water-related impacts of climate change....
Read more »

Builders cheer demise of California environmental law

Upon attending the West Coast Green events at the Moscone Center in San Francisco this week, I was thrilled to find out that Governor...
Read more »

Recycling carpets in California will save landfill space

Of the myriad of things cramming California landfills, discarded carpets are taking up lots of space. About 400 million pounds are tossed each year,...
Read more »

Got News?

Send story tips or news items for The Daily Catch:

[email protected]

We want to hear from you!

Who we are

Way Out West is a news site for the Bay Area dedicated to daily coverage of local green news.

We're camping out at public meetings, traipsing through parks, and sticking our noses into green tech research to bring you relevant local stories that matter.

WOW is produced by two local environmental journalists for you, our eco-savvy readers. We'd love to hear what you want from this site.