Don’t take it out on the tuna

I was recently confronted with this image on a social networking site:

 RADIYASHUNZderp

Part of its tagline read “The medias [sic] latest distraction is working nicely. Meanwhile, our entire planet is flooding with extremely high levels of radiation and it keeps getting worse by the day. Something must be done.”

I have no problems agreeing with the sentiment of the statement about Miley Cyrus’s antics and their ability to captivate audiences.  Frivolous nonsense aside though, this is a deeply misleading image.  The dramatic colours permeating the Pacific supposedly represent  the extent of radioactive material leakage from the Fukushima nuclear power facility in Japan.

You may be inclined to think, that’s a lot of radioactive stuff, and it’s gone very far.  For half a moment I did.  Then I remembered not to blindly believe the message being portrayed, and looked more deeply into it…  Hang about, that scale is in centimetres – a unit of length, not radioactivity.

That’s because this map has nothing to do with radioactive leakage – it doesn’t even have any direct relation to Fukushima.  It’s the projection onto a 2D map of this image from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, showing the 2011 tsunami’s maximum wave height.

I’m curious as to whether or not the person who produced this drivel knew the mistake they were making.  If I had to guess, it would be no – I can easily imagine someone involuntarily spitting their organic antioxidant-rich superfood cereal bar over their laptop after having googled ‘Fukushima’ and seen this, then feeling duty-bound to share it with the world.  Dishonest intentions or not, when faced with an image like this it’s easy to come to one’s own conclusions a little quicker than one should.

Unfortunately, discussion about Fukushima is littered with this kind of fear-mongering.  Take for instance the headline-grabbing reports about radioactive fish near Fukushima waters.  Many west-coast Americans are now afraid to eat tuna caught in the Pacific for fear they’ll grow another limb if they do.  The situation is explained perfectly here; what none of these reports tell you is that elevated levels of radioisotopes by no means necessarily constitute hazardous levels of radioisotopes.

You may also have read about the ‘300 tonnes of radioactive water’ leaking into the Pacific every day since the crisis.  Judging by the vastly-conflicting media reports I personally think that number is a little dubious.  Nonetheless, it does sound like a lot – to use the classic unit favoured by journalists the world over, that’s a 2-metre deep Olympic pool every 8 days.  It’s important to get a perspective on the scale of dilution going on here though.  1OP emptying into the Pacific Ocean, which has a volume of 6.6×10^17 m^3 (cheers Wolfram), every 8 days, for 2.5 years, represents 0.0000000004% of the ocean’s content originating from the site.  Ok, this is very much a ballpark figure, and that water is nowhere near evenly-distributed throughout the ocean, but hopefully it gives you an idea of how long it would actually take for the ocean to have any meaningful content of radioactive material.

The problem the nuclear industry has where public opinion is concerned is that so many people hold irrational opinions about the risk of radiation.  It’s important to remember that we come into contact with it every day.  Walls, food, even people have a small level of radioactivity.  The xkcd comic-writers have wonderfully illustrated this with a radiation dose chart which worth bearing a look at. Aside from the Olympic Pool, one of my favourite units is the Banana Equivalent Dose.  The average banana has an activity of roughly 15 Becquerels (15Bq), i.e. every second around 15 potassium-40 nuclei in your lunchbox decay, producing radiation (this isn’t quite the same as a BED, which takes into account the source and way in which the radiation is absorbed by the body).

Some figures released by Tepco in August show that there are 50,000-80,000 Bq (roughly 3000-5000 bananas) per cubic centimetre in the highly contaminated water collecting in the basements of the facility.  This is collected and treated, though it’s thought a lot leaks into the ground. Post-treatment, the water has levels of activity which are orders of magnitude lower. That which makes it into the groundwater contributes to the aforementioned ‘300 tons per day’, though again my dilution point applies: Put a litre (or 300 tons, you choose) of highly-radioactive water into an ocean of clean water, and you’ll get… an ocean of clean water (or, a negligibly differing amount of radioactivity, if you understand the concept of negligible).

Also, what none of the fact-scarce media reports have pointed out is that nearly 100% of the radiation detected at on-site storage leaks is beta radiation.  If you’ll cast your mind back to GCSE Physics, beta radiation is the emission of a single electron, and is absorbed by say, a sheet of paper, or two metres of air.  It is nearly impossible for a beta-emitter to cause a lethal dose in a human, no matter how strong, unless it is ingested.

Some of the more absurd claims about How Much Danger You’re In tend to come from websites such as ‘thetruthwins.com’ and ‘popularresistance.org’, with the former enlightening us all with ‘11 facts about the ongoing Fukushima nuclear holocaust that are almost too horrifying to believe’.  Amongst this reputable list you’ll find truths such as ‘Something is causing fish along the west coast of Canada to bleed from their gills, bellies and eyeballs.  Could Fukushima be responsible?’ (no), or ‘150 former sailors and Marines say that they now have radiation sickness as a result of serving on U.S. Navy ships near Fukushima and they are suing for damages.’

To conclude, the point of my post is this: You are not in danger because of Fukushima.  Do not let anyone tell you otherwise, and treat misinformed media reports (even mainstream ones), with a healthy dose of scepticism.

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BS Detection

And so for the first skirmish in my tyrade against all things pseudoscientific. You may or may not have heard recently about a chap named Jim McCormick, the entrepeneur behind the ADE-651 ‘bomb detection device’. He was today convicted to eight years’ imprisonment for these dubious little gizmos. His company, ATSC, promoted the ADE651 from 2008 as a sort of miracle bomb detector, with an unprecedented sensing range of up to a kilometre away (three from an aircraft), and an impossibly high rate of detection (100%), being able to completely overcome all manner of concealment methods. The catch is, they didn’t work. At all. As explained by the manufacturers, they work by ‘electrostatic ion attraction’. Anyone who remembers a gram of GCSE Physics or Chemistry will realise that this is the process by which ionic bonds are made (i.e., how salt is held together). Suffice to say, it doesn’t explain the complicated process by which one would differentiate between molecules of a harmless substance, and molecules of explosives (or, for that matter, drugs, ivory and missing persons – all claims made by ATSC). Did you ever use a ‘dowsing stick’ as a child? You know, the Y-shaped sticks held by each stalk, which can magically find water? Me neither, but that’s essentially what this is, except with a five-figure price tag. It turns out, in fact, that the inspiration for the device derived from a novelty golf ball finder.

For all its hilarity as a gimmick, this story has a fairly obvious darker side. In 2008, the Iraqi Interior Ministry signed a £19 million contract with ATSC for the devices, which were subsequently given to security teams on checkpoints throughout the country. On October 25th 2009, suicide bombers smuggled two tonnes of explosive past one such checkpoint outside of Baghdad, and killed 155 people.

There are a whole host of shortfalls in rationality which I can see here. My first point of contention lies with Jim himself, along with his other cronies at ATSC. It’s fairly obvious to me that he knew that this product was quackery; as a businessman and former copper who successfully made it to his late fifties, I can’t imagine he would have got to where he was if he was the type to believe in the magic behind dowsing rods. This leaves one question: how, as a human being, could he purport this non-product to be a device which saves lives, in the full knowledge that in doing so he was actually endangering them? Peddling novelty golf devices is one thing, but an explosives detector? Further, did he think he would get away with it? He must have realised that questions would start being asked once the devices were shown not to work, and with such tragic consequences. Either he was a fool, or a deceptive liar; likely both.

Lack of rationality award number two goes to the Iraqi Interior Ministry. Iraq, as we unfortunately know, is a country whose government is in the unfortunate situation of being a bit of a mess. However, this isn’t their fault – brutal dictator, questionable foreign intervention, insurgency, etc, etc – it doesn’t mean that those in charge are stupid people. But if you’re going to use the methods of science as a means to an end, you need at least a basic knowledge of how it works. Is scientific understanding in Iraq (once a cultural and scientific heart of the world) so poor that nobody thought to ask for some evidence about ATSC’s claims? And if ‘evidence’ was given by ATSC, why wasn’t it laughed out of the country, and infallible (peer-reviewed) evidence demanded instead? Major-General Jahed al-Jabiri, of the of the Ministry’s General Directorate for Combating Explosives, provided a dismal insight into the situation: “Whether it’s magic or scientific, what I care about is detecting bombs.”

The blame-buck doesn’t stop at Jim and the Iraqi government, however. ADE651s were manufactured in Somerset. How, in one of the most developed countries in the world, was such dangerous and dubious technology allowed to exist, let alone be exported to a war-torn corner of the planet, where their deployment would ultimately play the part in the deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, of people? If a pharmaceutical company marketed sugar pills as cancer cures, they’d be shut down quicker than you can say homoeopathy. The British government did ban the export of the products in January 2010. January 2010?! Had the dowsing rods that ministers and civil servants used to find the office all broken, for over a year? There are questions which need to be answered – how did these make it to market in the first place? Once there, how did they stay on sale for over a year whilst Jim McCormick made millions off of the Iraqi, Pakistani, Lebanese and Kenyan governments?

What is perhaps the most concerning aspect of this debacle is that it isn’t the first time this has happened. In July 2008, the US Securities and Exchanges Commission charged the Texas-based company Homeland Security International with fraud for the marketing of their product, Sniffex, as an explosive detection device. Again, it was a dowsing rod. Something severely wrong is going on if products like these are being allowed to make it to market, where they are endagering lives, again and again. People like our mate Jim are seeing an opportunity to exploit developing countries with a thin veil of science, and taking it, in order to line their pockets. It would appear that many government officials, both here and abroad, need a good healthy dose of scepticism in their lives. If a device with unprecedented abilities in finding explosives appears too good to be true, it probably is. Maybe governments should be provided with some sort of miracle bullshit detection device.