August 7, 2018
When I purchased a commonly available radiation detector right after the Fukushima disaster in 2011 I never would have dreamed how it would impact the way I saw the world. Since then I would periodically test the level of radioactivity around my home here in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. Nothing was ever out of the ordinary, and my own readings were generally in the 30 to 50 counts per minute (cpm) range. Perfectly safe, or so I thought.
That all changed this Spring, when by chance I happened to remember that testing on an air filter could show the presence of “hot” particles. Since I happened to own two air cleaners with HEPA air filters, I got out my detector and laid it down on one of the HEPA filters. Immediately the detector went into a wild frenzy of clicking punctuated by the flashing of the red light each time it was bombarded by ionizing radiation. Thinking something had to be wrong, I tried again only to have the same result. I tried again on the other air cleaner and found an even higher result of over 800 cpm.
Since I had at that time been working with Akio for about a year, and had been introduced to several of his nuclear experts by email, I reached out to them asking what could possibly be causing this disturbing result. All agreed this was a high result, and the prime suspect was radon gas. Radon gas is common in this area, and can be threat to health. I promptly obtained test kits for my indoor air and well water, sent them in, and within a week I had the results – – all completely negative. At this point, concerned for the health of my family, I began testing everything I could think of to try to determine the source. Floor tiles, countertops and a few other things registered higher than the ambient level, but I was assured that this wouldn’t contribute more than about 30 cpm to the total.
After about a week or so, I remembered reading that many years after the Chernobyl disaster, people living there who heated their homes with wood, like we do, released radiation into the atmosphere once again in the burning process. We have two woodstoves in our home, one large one in the living room and a smaller one in the master bedroom. Since the fine particulate material of the ash might contaminate my detector, I laid down some sheets of paper towels on the ash below the stove in the bedroom, and switched the detector on. Immediately it registered far higher than ambient levels and beyond. Same in the living room. Same at a neighbor’s house. The source apparently was the fire wood – – mostly cut on my own land. Most of my neighbors heat with wood too, at least as a backup. Wood smoke, as I was well-aware, is composed of extremely small particulates that are easily breathed into the body and absorbed.
The implications of this discovery were disturbing. There were radioactive particles in the air that we were all breathing, apparently in large quantities. These particles had apparently been bio-accumulating in the woods around my home for many years, and were re-suspended when burned.
I immediately began monitoring my indoor air regularly, and took a reading on the HEPA filters whenever I could, generally hourly when I was home. Since the level of radiation was much lower without wood smoke indoors, I decided to put one air cleaner outdoors and leave the other indoors. I got out a fresh legal tablet and started a protocol where I would take a reading on each filter, take a picture of the result on my radiation detector with my smartphone, and write down the results. This quickly showed that there was not a much difference between the readings indoors or outdoors.
What I did not know at this point was if this was a localized problem, or whether it was more widespread. With fire season approaching, I abandoned taking two readings, and focused on carefully taking readings outdoors, recording them, and taking a picture of the sky when smoke or clouds were present. Knowing that a fire event was likely going to happen in the upcoming months, I wanted to be ready to see if smoke from wildfires outdoors would result in similar levels of radioactive particles as I had found indoors.
I never could have suspected that the wildfires in California would be as epic as they have been this year. We live in an area vulnerable to fires, and we take them seriously. We had been evacuated in 2014 as a fire approached to within a half mile of our home driven by strong winds, and were only saved by a massive air attack from a virtual fleet of air tankers lined up dropping water and fire retardant. This left a deep impression on us. My stepson has since become a fireman, and has just returned from a deployment to several fires, and after nursing an injury and getting clearance from his doctor, will be back on the fire lines.
As horrific as this season’s fires have been so far, with all the destruction of homes and loss of lives, what disturbs me most is what I have just recorded in my logs, photos and readings. At the peak of the fires and smoke just a few days ago, the readings were significantly higher – – and not by just a little. I recorded a peak reading of 1,333 cpm on the morning of July 31st, and had multiple readings above 1,000 cpm during that period. And, none of the fires is even close to us this time. The likely source of much of the smoke here is a fire near Yosemite National Park, over a hundred miles away. I suspect heavier concentrations of smoke would yield higher results.
Has the vast bulk of the 40 million population of California just been unknowingly exposed to high concentrations of radioactive particles? What are the constituents of these particles? How hazardous are they? It was recently widely reported that radiation from Fukushima, in the form of Cesium-137, was detected in small quantities in California wines. There can be little doubt that Cesium-137 from Fukushima has also been absorbed by all the vegetation here, and when burned, is re-released.
This situation cries out for serious study. I have no experience or academic training in this field. There may well be alternative explanations. I can see from what I have recorded that there are nuances and variances over the course of the day that probably reflect complex processes. All I know is that what we have been breathing shows indications of being contaminated with radioactive particles. It is strongly implied that this radioactivity has been silently concentrating in the plants around us, and is presumably in the food we eat, and in what we drink as well.
If that is correct, this is a situation far worse than we have ever been told. It is likely a global problem, as the exotic and unnatural particles that never existed on this planet previously until the dawning of the nuclear age have now found their way into the air, the oceans, and every living thing. With California on fire, my hope is for all of us to burn away our own complacency, and reignite our own passion to serve life itself in each moment. We can all do something to help according to our abilities, as Akio has selflessly done for many years using his gifts in bringing together international leaders for important common goals. Time is short, and the problem is measured in lifetimes. And potentially for some of us, shortened lifetimes at that.
Gregg Lien is an environmental and land use attorney practicing at Lake Tahoe in California. He is a former prosecutor, and was a former assistant county counsel specializing in land use issues before moving to Lake Tahoe in 1980. He was a participant in the first Presidential Summit on the Environment, hosted by then President Clinton and Vice-President Al Gore, and has been interviewed over the years in various media, including National Public Radio. He has been a frequent participant in regulatory negotiations and battles over resources in the Sierras. He lives with his wife, Heidi, and whichever of their children needs a place to stay now that the youngest has turned 18. He is fascinated by electronics and has a collection of meters and gadgets for his amateur radio and musical hobbies, some of which are actually useful in practical application – – or so he claims.