What’s the Fallout for Dogs Near Fukushima?

BY Jenny Marder  November 10, 2011 at 5:54 PM EST

While shooting, the NewsHour and Safecast crew encounter an abandoned dog. Photo by Sean Bonner of Safecast.org.

Update: 4 pm ET, Nov 11|

At the tail end of Miles O’Brien’s latest NewsHour report on radiation in Japan, a golden dog with a thick red collar trots into the street of the abandoned town, Katsurao, and weaves along the center divider.

Miles asks, off camera: “Do we have anything to feed him?”

The piece, which airs tonight, reports on the group Safecast, which has measured, mapped and crowdsourced data on radiation levels in locations throughout Japan, particularly in the hot spots near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

The dog was one of several scrawny, undernourished dogs and cats they encountered, most likely abandoned by their owners during rapid evacuation. (The crew did, incidentally, have food in their supply for the dog – sweet buns with bean paste and sushi.)

Signs of the animals were everywhere, according to Xeni Jardin, who produced and helped shoot the piece. Bowls filled with dog food by a makeshift police station. A dog emerging from a cluster of houses near a stream. A cat poking its head out from behind the corner of an abandoned house. And on a lamppost, a sign with pictures of various dogs that had been rescued from the area, one of which has since been found.

“These were not feral cats and dogs,” Jardin said. “It’s obvious they were part of someone’s family. As you feel empathy for these abandoned creatures, you start to feel the scope of the disruption and abandonment and complete destruction of the social fabric in Japan. The Japanese are very, very sweet to their pets.”

Indeed, Japan is known for its animal lovers. After all, this is the land of cat cafes, where people pay by the hour to get their feline fix, hanging out and relaxing with resident cats. Some of these cafes are so crowded that reservations are recommended on weekends.

The dogs and cats spotted in Katsurao were were among thousands of pets abandoned after residents were forced to quickly evacuate areas around the Fukushima plant, after the tsunami damaged the facility, causing equipment failures and a release of radioactive materials.

“I think people expected not to be out of their homes for any length of time,” said Ian Robinson, animal rescue program director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, one of the groups that traveled to the evacuation zone after the disaster.

Upon visiting the area after the earthquake, Robinson’s group found that many local Japanese groups were eager to help with animal rescue efforts, but there was confusion as to whether the animals in the radiation hot spots were safe to handle and how they should be tested for contamination. (As one of our readers pointed out, the Hachiko Coalition is an organization that has done a great deal of animal rescue work in the Fukushima radiation zone.)

They gathered international experts, produced a report in May and gave it to the Japanese government. “We hoped that would free up the ability of the government and NGO’s to remove animals,” Robinson said. “To a certain extent that happened, though as always with these things, they don’t happen as well and smoothly as we would like. There have been holdups.”

Among the recommendations, they suggested that each team be equipped with protective equipment and a real-time dosimeter to measure radiation, that animals be bathed with soap and warm water, and that feeding stations be strategically placed to coax animals out from restricted zones.

As long as the animals are appropriately cleaned and quarantined, they should be ultimately safe to handle and adopt, said Timothy Mousseau, a professor of biological sciences at the University of South Carolina, who has extensively studied animals — mostly birds and insects — exposed to radiation.

Most of the area’s contamination derives from cesium that was released as a product of fission from the nuclear reactors, he said. Cesium, which has a half life of 30 years and produces low levels of gamma radiation, is less chemically toxic than the uranium or plutonium released after the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine.

Animals will eventually eliminate the radioactive material from their bodies, Mousseau said, though that could take anywhere from a week to 4 to 5 months, depending on their size and the degree of contamination.

“Since it’s cesium, it will get cleared from their bodies,” he said.

But for animals and people, there are still many unknowns about the radiation risks, and the harm that it might cause. As Miles reports in his piece, “There is no question that ionizing radiation alters human cells, which can cause cancer and genetic defects … but how much exposure and for how long? The science, like the readings, is all over the map.”

In one area that Miles and the crew visited, for example, levels reached the equivalent of six X-rays a day.

There is the possibility for radiation exposure during rescue, Robinson said. “The danger is not visible, like a fire or a flood where you can see the danger, but it’s still very, very real,” he said. “That’s something that has to be borne in mind.”

Mousseau’s research has found significant genetic damage and breakages in chromosomes among animals exposed to radiation in and around Chernobyl. Developmental abnormalities, tumors, and species decline and extinction have also been attributed to radiation exposure in the area.

The area around Fukushima happens to share 14 species of birds also found around Chernobyl, including the barn swallow. Given the contamination levels reported by citizen groups, it’s possible that we could also see “multigenerational effects” and fundamental changes in the ecosystem in Japan as a result of the disaster, he said. Research in the area by his team and others should provide a greater understanding of the effects of radiation exposure on birds and other wildlife.

“What Fukushima offers us as scientists is the opportunity to watch how these populations and communities change over time as a result of radioactive contaminants,” Mousseau said. “In Chernobyl, everything was top secret. We don’t really know how things began. Fukushima offers us the opportunity to follow these organisms from the beginning.”

Find more coverage on our science page.