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Radiation monitoring will be transparent; no risk anticipated, health officials say

March 17, 2011 |  4:37 pm


California health officials held a joint news conference in Sacramento on Thursday to say they were monitoring radiation levels statewide and will make the information available to the public as they get it.

They again emphasized that although radiation released at a Japanese power plant could reach the state within days, it is expected to pose no danger to people’s health or to the environment.

“The amounts will be so small as to be equivalent to our background radiation sources from air and soil,” said Dr. Howard Backer, interim director of the California Department of Public Health, adding that “The monitors have shown no increase in radiation, any of the monitors along the West Coast.”

Backer said it will probably take days for radiation to reach the West Coast, most likely arriving first in Alaska.

The Environmental Protection Agency has a dozen air monitoring sites in California, and the state has an additional eight radiological monitoring stations — two in Eureka and one each in Los Angeles, San Diego, Richmond, Livermore, Avila Beach and San Luis Obispo.

The latest state samples were taken Thursday and the first results should be available next week, said Mike Sicilia, a spokesman for the California Department of Public Health.

“It’s not a solid wave that we can track,” he said of radiation released in Japan. “The public will know if it’s detected. Our challenge is going to be making sure that people understand that detecting it is not a sign of a threat to public health.”

 Los Angeles County’s public health chief, Dr. Jonathan E. Fielding, promised that public health officials will disclose the most up-to-date information they gather concerning radiation levels.

“We will be completely transparent in everything we’re seeing,” he said. “Monitoring for radiation has been in place for 60 years and in fact our equipment has become quite sensitive. We have over 100 monitors that are providing us with readings telemetrically from all over Los Angeles County.”

Mike Dayton, acting secretary at the California Emergency Management Agency, said that even in the event of a catastrophic failure at a Japanese nuclear plant, “There is not a reason to get nervous.”

“Worst-case scenario, there is no threat to public health,” Dayton said.

A state hotline set up to field residents' questions about the radiation has received several hundred calls a day this week. Fielding said his office had received many calls from residents worried about potential radiation.

“The biggest health impact is the psychological impact,” Fielding said. “Any time people hear ‘radiation,’ it provokes a level of fear disproportionate to the threat… It’s like ‘plague.’ We need to debunk that and make sure we put this in the right context. We are not in Japan.”

He reiterated a warning against taking potassium iodide to ward off radiation, a warning issued by his office earlier this week and Thursday by San Bernardino County health officials. Fielding also warned against buying Geiger counters and other radiation detection devices marketed to those panicked by the unfolding disaster in Japan, saying they are unnecessary at the moment in California.


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Follow Molly Hennessy-Fiske on Twitter @mollyhf

-- Molly Hennessy-Fiske

Map: Austria's Federal Ministry for Science and Research has released this map showing radioactive material from the disaster in Japan moving across the Pacific Ocean toward California.