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March 28, 2011

What is Missing in Mass Media Reporting of Japan's Radiation Contamination

Takahiro Miyao  (Emeritus Professor, University of Tsukuba, Japan and Visiting Professor of Economics, University of Southern California, USA)
(March 28, 2011: Do not quote without permission)

Horrifying news headlines on Japan's nuclear crisis have been appearing in both the Japanese and foreign media for the last couple of weeks. People naturally worry if they read such headlines as "Tokyo water 'unfit for babies' due to high radiation" and "Radioactive levels in sea 1250 times higher than the safely limit" (BBC News). Undoubtedly, these media reports have been able to serve as warnings to convey the seriousness and danger of the high level of radiation in and around the Fukushima nuclear power plants to the general public and facilitate the adoption of various measures for the safety of residents near the nuclear plants as well as for the repair of the damaged nuclear facilities.

As far as the reality outside of the immediate vicinities of the damaged nuclear reactors is concerned, however, what is not mentioned in those media headlines or in any part of the reports themselves is the fact that Japan's guideline values by which the degree of safety and risk for human health is measured are overly conservative, that is, much stricter than internationally accepted standards. For example, the Nuclear Safety Commission of the Japanese government has set an extremely strict guideline value for restriction of intake of drinking water, that is, 10 times stricter than the internationally agreed "Operational Intervention Levels" (see WHO Japan Report No. 15, p. 12:

This is why the Japanese government had to make such a confusing announcement that "if no bottled water is available, babies might be given tap water which would pose no health risk for the moment," when they declared that tap water is unfit for babies to drink. For the same reason, both farmers and consumers seem to be quite unhappy and strongly complaining about the government's decision to order a total ban on the shipment of "contaminated" agricultural products in a wide (prefecture-wide) region immediately after just small sample tests showed radiation levels above the "guidelines values."

One of the serious consequences of these too stringent standards in Japan is that an increasing number of countries are now restricting the imports of Japanese food items, based on the information and the signals that they obtained from Japan, although in fact those items are safe enough to consumer by the international standards. One should be reminded that Japan has long been criticized by the US and other countries for its too strict safety standards as "non-tariff barriers" for their exports to Japan. However, such high standards are haunting Japan itself in the aftermath of the March 11 disaster.

Now that there has been so much misunderstanding and confusion among the general public at home and abroad, the Japanese government seems to be taking a step to review its guidelines and possibly revise it in line with the internationally accepted standards for radiation safety (see the link below). Hopefully, this will be done before the government's misleading statements and misguided decisions on radiation "contamination" become the fourth disaster following the trio of the massive earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accidents in Japan.