Fukushima on the Gulf Coast: What the media isn’t telling you about the human costs of energy disasters
Watching the tragedy in Fukushima unfold, in recent weeks, I saw a sickening replay of a familiar script. As the magnitude of the dangers posed by the radiation leaks and ongoing failure to control the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant were unveiled, their coverage on the main pages of world news outlets decreased.
You could blame it on the public; we have short attention spans. You don’t have to be very far away from these disasters, it seems, to become easily jaded. But if the American public has short attention spans, I will argue that it is because we have been trained to be so, by the Pavlovian conditioning of the daily assault of mass media and advertising. Easily distracted people are easy to sell things to.
But more importantly, easily distracted people also easily forget what their neighbors are going through, even if these are grave crimes. Which serves the spin-masters in the Japanese government and Tokyo Electric Power Company just as well as it has our own U.S. government and BP for the past year. If you can hide the worst details of a disaster in the early days, when they come out later fewer people are paying attention.
Which is exactly has happened in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Not yet a year has passed, and the coverage of the real costs to people who live on the Gulf Coast of this disaster are utterly absent from the pages of mainstream American media.
Which is what I am asking you, reader, to overcome.
The gross failure of the media
As a journalist I am particularly angry about the role that the media has played and is playing in downplaying the risks that people face from these disasters, a pattern which I have witnessed both in Fukushima and in the oil flood following the Deepwater Horizon accident.
In our complex, technological, contemporary society the media fills a very important role in informing the public about what is actually going on in the world. However, it seems that to many media outlets and journalists, this role is secondary to managing public perceptions. The role that journalists take mirror that of government and corporate public relations, in that keeping the public calm takes priority.
Or it could be that many journalists themselves do not do sufficient research to find out what the real dangers are. However, I find that highly unlikely given how easy it is to find much of this information from credible sources.
Regardless of why, in both disasters the majority of large, and some local media outlets have failed us by failing to warn the public of the actual dangers that we face from these disasters. The most obvious way was by not warning the public of the worst health effects, though it is significant that the media also frequently fails to report on these health effects as they are revealed.
Media failures in Fukushima
For a long time I was a big fan of the BBC. I felt like I was getting a more balanced, more global, less corporate-influenced version of the news. That confidence is gone. Again and again I have watched the BBC downplay the dangers that the Japanese people face, even as the United States government set a much higher recommended evacuation zone and the head of France’s nuclear agency stated that the accident is an INES level 6 – the second highest rating, less severe only than Chernobyl.
Meanwhile, the BBC, which seems to be taking its cues from the Japanese government, has repeatedly cited the Japanese government’s absurd initial rating of INES level 4. The Japanese government later admitted that the accident is an INES level 5, days after U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu told the world that the accident was worse than Three Mile Island (a five on the INES scale.)
I now realize there are Judith Millers on both sides of the Atlantic.
The Japanese government is interested in downplaying its own liability for allowing Tokyo Electric Power Company to build these plants on a fault line. It doesn’t want a huge health disaster on its hands, and it appears to be doing what President Barack Obama’s administration did after the Deepwater Horizon oil flood – lying its way out of responsibility for what had happened and its inability (unwillingness?) to control a large corporation.
Meanwhile, not only the BBC but a number of media organizations seemed to go out of their way to downplay radiation fears, regurgitating official statistics about the lack of cancer deaths associated with past nuclear accidents. But as the child of a cancer survivor, I know that when someone gets cancer, you never know exactly why, so it is impossible to track all the cases of cancer to which exposure to radiation contributed.
And again, I must cite conflict of interest: government officials have a material interest in not being liable for giving people cancer, not having to deal with public health crises in which they may be implicated, and not interrupting the status quo of power generation.
It is interesting to note that I have seen this in other stories by the BBC, including a story about an Taiwanese factory producing iPhones were workers were exposed to n-hexane, a chemical found in the blood of Gulf Coast residents. The article mentions more superficial effects, but never that n-hexane is toxic to the nervous system.
In high enough doses radiation causes cancer and birth defects. Let’s be clear on that one. The Fukushima disaster has led to very high levels of radioactivity in the ocean and in the air near the plants.
Media failures in the Gulf Coast BP oil disaster
This all follows the play book I saw after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Again and again I watched both U.S. national media and the New Orleans Times-Picayune fall down on the job.
In May 2010, Journalist Tom Philpott of Grist Magazine reported that one of the main ingredients in one of the two varieties of Corexit that BP was spraying contained 2-Butoxyethanol, which causes birth defects and testicular damage in rats (no data for human testing is available for obvious reasons). NIH analysis here: http://hazmap.nlm.nih.gov/cgi-bin/hazmap_generic?tbl=TblAgents&id=129
I never saw the words “birth defects” “reproductive harm” or “testicular damage” in any of the media coverage following the gulf oil flood until a group I worked with organized a rally in Baton Rouge to call for an end to the spraying of Corexit, specifically citing these dangers. After that, the concept again disappeared from the media.
Even when legendary Chemist Wilma Subra (winner of the 2011 Global Exchange Human Rights Award) came to New Orleans to directly address the issue of impacts of the oil and dispersant, and specifically addressed the potential for birth defects, miscarriages and reproductive harm, the Times-Picayune still failed to talk about these dangers.
The article produced, which was better than many before it, specifically mentioned: “skin irritation, nausea, headaches and vomiting… liver and kidney damage, cardiac arrhythmia and chronic respiratory problems”. Journalist Bill Barrow also mentioned that benzene causes cancer – one of the few times that I have seen the word “cancer” in the media connected to this disaster.
Having your child born deformed is many magnitudes of severity greater than skin irritation.
On a technical note, a common practice has been to solely quote Material Safety Data Sheets. Which is dumb. Producing MSDS sheets is the responsibility of the manufacturer, which is a clear conflict of interest. They frequently do not include the most dangerous long-term effects. For a serious accounting of dangers, I refer to the National Institute of Health’s Haz-Map program – a program produced by a credible government organization that is a few steps removed from liability, and does not have the direct competing interests as do the corporations that make dangerous chemicals.
I must also note that in addition to Grist, one other media outlet deserves praise for their forthright coverage of what is happening in the Gulf: Al Jazeera. Looking at their coverage of this disaster, one wonders if Al-Jazeera exists on the same planet as the Times-Picayune and the BBC.
I never thought I would join the activists in Mobile Alabama in praising a media network from a monarchy in the Middle East for their coverage of a local issue. We truly live in strange times.
What is going on in the Gulf
I have very bad news for Gulf residents, which I have waited until after Mardi Gras to deliver for my New Orleans readers.
We have evidence that the seafood from the Gulf is contaminated with high levels of poly-aromatic hydrocarbons, and that the FDA instead changed the acceptable levels to avoid warning you.
Cleanup workers and residents who live in coastal parishes and counties the near the Gulf have been poisoned. A large number are reporting serious health effects, and the blood tests that have come back from some of those suffering these health effects show highly elevated levels of highly toxic hydrocarbons including benzene (which causes cancer), ethylbenze (which may cause cancer, damages the liver, and is toxic to the nervous system), xylene and hexane (which is toxic to the nervous system).
This information is all from the National Institute of Health’s Haz-Map program and Chemist Wilma Subra. The full information from Ms. Subra is available here: http://leanweb.org/news/latest/making-the-connection-2011.html.
I refer you to the earlier information about 2-butoxyethanol and birth defects and reproductive harm. Since we have seen every other health impact associated with these chemicals, there is no reason to believe that we will not see these.
In case you didn’t get the memo the first time around, the government will not tell you, there is a serious health crisis in parts of Southeast Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Gulf Coast, and it is not going away because the cameras have left.
We must transition from fossil fuels and nuclear power
I pray for the residents of Fukushima Prefecture and the residents of Northern Japan, as well as for the residents of the Gulf that none of their families must suffer this terrible outcome, as did families in the Ukraine and Belarus following the Chernobyl disaster.
But we must be clear – cancer, birth defects, and the poisoning of whole regions – these are the human costs of our dependence upon unsustainable energy sources, the drive of large corporations to make a profit at any cost, and the deep collusion between governments and corporations. We will pay them again and again until we make profound changes in the way we use energy, and change the structure of our society.
Moving to a sane and sustainable energy and transportation infrastructure – meaning renewable energy, high speed rail and other forms of efficient mass transit – isn’t just about feeling good about “going green”. It is about people’s lives – whether that is in Navarre Beach Florida, Venice Louisiana, or Fukushima, Japan.
In the short run, people on the Gulf Coast need to have this addressed as a real health crisis and the result of a poisoning, so that they can access the resources that they need.