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From Half Moon Bay to Fukushima – Managing Fear, Taking Appropriate Action

A good Geiger Counter can be an invaluable tool.  It can tell you a lot.  With one, you can see what is invisible to human eyes and other human sensory systems.   You can then use that information to take appropriate action if you see something unusual.  Knowing that you have that ability can empower you – and give you peace of mind.

The humble Geiger Counter, used with some skill and knowledge, can save lives and prevent suffering.   It can also be used as a tool for learning about the natural world around us, which is truly fascinating.

But Geiger Counters give you a limited view at relatively low cost – only a peak into that invisible realm.  The veil becomes lifted, but you have to use some scientific method, understand the rules, sometimes consult other instruments, to get a definitive picture of a given situation.

Interpreting or misinterpreting what you are detecting can be a learning experience, and, when you share it on YouTube, well….a lot of us got a learning experience over the holidays.

The YouTube video of  a Geiger Counter on a beach at Half Moon Bay went viral.  It was viewed over 600,000 times in a couple of weeks.  Speculation was that unusual readings  meant something from Fukushima had arrived on the West Coast.  People along coastlines throughout the Pacific Rim became concerned.

It was not just the video of  an innocent guy, a concerned citizen, finding something radioactive and jumping to conclusions.   It was the combination of that, combined with a lot of fear mongering  by other people (not connected to him)  on various websites – about crazy scenarios unfolding at Fukushima Daiichi.  Azby Brown at Safecast Japan covered some of those stories here.  I asked people to consider not forwarding email or web links that donʻt ring true here.

During this period I heard reports of people taking potassium iodide, duct taping themselves into rooms, and refraining from eating anything from the ocean, or even fresh vegetables.

I monitor for radiation daily and I volunteer for Safecast.  I trust their data and their team to be rock solid.  I knew there was no massive radiation event happening.  A close friend and trusted partner, Steve Weiss, lives on Half Moon Bay – near the beach in question.   He and I have been working together in the radiation detection field for  over 35 years.  We were designers of the original Inspector almost 25 years ago.  Reports of beach contamination were based an Inspector reading.  Thus we felt an added sense of responsibility in this situation.   Steve rushed me a bag of sand from from one of the areas of concern on the beach.  I analyzed it  and reported the data to Safecast and to this blogpost.

Steve Weiss taking radiation measurements Half Moon Bay
Steve Weiss taking radiation measurements with an Inspector Alert Geiger Counter, Half Moon Bay

Sean Bonner of Safecast also did some research and posted his findings here.  There was a lot of Trans-California and Trans-Pacific collaboration going on.  A few days later, Health Officials confirmed our preliminary conclusions, as reported by Half Moon Bay Patch here.

Dan Sythe in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, December 2011
Dan Sythe on the beach in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, with multi channel analyzer, December 2011

Why did we have confidence that the elevated readings were not from Fukushima?   Hard earned experience, and different technology.   I traveled to inhabited areas of Fukushima Prefecture with Sean and other Safecasters in December 2011, carrying a multichannel analyzer.  The spectra on the sand on the beach in Iwaki did not look anything like the sand at Half Moon Bay.  See the spectra below.

Sample of deck material from contaminated area of Fukushima Prefecture
Spectra from Fukushima Prefecture.  Note Cesium 137.
This is the spectra from the beach sample
Spectra from Half Moon Bay.  Note Radium 226 and Thorium 232

I guess the moral of this holiday story is donʻt believe everything you hear on the internet, and also remember that a Geiger Counter can only give you a limited view of a new situation.  Try not to jump to conclusions until you have all the information.  There are many sources of radiation in medicine, in homes and workplaces, and in the natural environment.

The spectra of radioactive isotopes are now well documented in Fukushima.  The data from Geiger Counters are invaluable over there, and there is no need to constantly collect new spectral data.  Half Moon Bay was a completely different situation – and it took some other tools and some research to sort it out.

I hope everyone knows that Potassium Iodide should not be taken lightly.  There are adverse reactions reported, and it should not be taken by pregnant women.  Itʻs value is actually controversial.  If there is value in taking it, itʻs only when radioactive forms of iodine are present in the air, food or beverages.  To my knowledge, this is not an issue at this point in time.

Iʻm very heartened that many people with diverse interests and concerns worked hard over the holidays to counter the apocalyptic internet reports about Fukushima Daiichi problems, and to help the general population calm down.