How Safe Is It To Travel To Tokyo?
July 26, 2011 6:21 PM   Subscribe

My family lives in Tokyo, and I grew up there, but I now go to school in the states. My parents want me to come out to visit next month, but I'm a bit concerned about the radiation. They assure me that any increase in the levels is negligible, but I realize that there are many different types of radiation, and food grown in the Fukushima area is still being served in Tokyo. I just really don't want to be a victim of hindsight, and it seems for every reputable article I can find that indicates the levels are safe, I can find another that begs me to reconsider the first. I don't know what to do. I don't want to be paranoid, but I also don't want the whole family to be at risk if there is an overlooked issue.
posted by howgenerica to Science & Nature (22 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
If this is your thinking, then just don't fly either, because that would also put the family in more danger! Is there another reason you don't want to go?
posted by Salvatorparadise at 6:35 PM on July 26, 2011

The flight will irradiate you many times more than the city itself. So will climbing a tall mountain. There are no radiation problems in Tokyo. They have plenty of radiation detectors and it is known to be safe.
posted by twblalock at 6:41 PM on July 26, 2011 [5 favorites]

The radiation in Tokyo is pretty negligible increase over background (like not detectable with very sensitive instruments most days). My understanding is also the most common isotope released from Fukushima has gone through several half lives now and is not nearly so dangerous. And yeah the increased radiation you will get from flying is way more than you are likely to see anywhere in Japan unless you actually visit the power plant.

Radiation is something that just instantly strikes you dead or makes you sick unless you are actually looking at a nuclear reaction like a bomb or reactor. It takes time and usually significant time to build up enough exposure to even give you an increased probability of cancer or such. And we really don't know the effect of long term exposure to the levels around fukushima. Some data on such is coming out of Chernobyl and there is limited amount from above ground nuclear tests for people downwind of Frenchman flats in Nevada.

A very interesting thing occurring is that airline crews and nuclear plant workers that do have a long term increase in low level radiation exposure are not showing increases in cancers. We really don't know and in this case the poison is definitely in the dose and the dose you will get in Tokyo aint enough to make any kind of difference.
posted by bartonlong at 6:45 PM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

It seems like if you're worried about radiation in Tokyo, shouldn't you try to convince your parents to leave? I think it's unlikely that a brief stay in the city would have as big an impact on your life as the full time exposure your family is getting. I guess what I'm saying is that if there is a real risk, there will be 12 million more people who would need treatment, so ideally you could get help if needed, too.

Just ask them to have your hazmat suit ready when they pick you up at Narita.
posted by Metro Gnome at 6:51 PM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

For quick, simple perspective, look here.
posted by kjs3 at 7:30 PM on July 26, 2011

Last year my wife and I had planned on going back to Japan this autumn. After Fukushima we've decided to go next year instead. There probably is nothing to worry about but we have zero trust in the Japanese government/industry and would rather not be victims of their false assurances.

Would it be possible to suggest that you all meet in some third location like Kyushu, Okinawa or Hawaii?
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 7:42 PM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think my biggest concern is not with radiation in the air/water, but in the food. The Fukushima region is a major agricultural center, and highly radioactive beef has already hit the streets of Tokyo. ( New York Times 07/19/2011)
It's very clear that the Japanese government didn't handle the crises properly, and didn't take appropriate measures to contain the threat either. And people don't really understand the long term effects of different forms of radiation - remember, Chernobyl was only 25 years ago.

I don't need things over-simplified, I just want an accurate assessment of the possible risks. I don't trust the government's reports either.
posted by howgenerica at 7:59 PM on July 26, 2011

Your family lives in Tokyo and I don't want to be paranoid, but I also don't want the whole family to be at risk if there is an overlooked issue. Forgive me if I am missing something, but their risk is unchanged regardless of whether or not you visit Tokyo. From this, I understand your question to be about your own personal safety, and not about your family's.

You say that your concern is especially about the food. Perhaps you could bring your own food with you, or be especially selective about the food you eat when you visit.
posted by Robert Angelo at 8:03 PM on July 26, 2011

It seems like if you're worried about radiation in Tokyo, shouldn't you try to convince your parents to leave?

This. If there is a risk, your parents are enduring it in daily life. So couldn't you endure it in order to visit them for a shorter period?

It seems a little odd that you seem only worried about the risks now that it's time for you to visit; this also leads me to believe your worry is more based on anxiety than reality; if it were based on real proof you'd be worried about your parents, too (I'd presume).
posted by bearette at 8:20 PM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

I am worried about my parents. Right after it happened in March I paid for them to all fly to Korea and wait it out, but they returned to Japan after a week. Every time I talk to them I express my concerns, but they live and work there, and it's not so easy for them to leave. I think it's highly inappropriate for you guys to attempt to infer anything about my feelings for my parents from my post. They are educated and informed, and they have made the decision to stay, and there is nothing I can do about it. All I can do is figure out for myself whether the same decision makes sense for me.

Robert, I don't think it would be a possibility to only eat food that I've brought, but it's a good suggestion. The thing is, I was hoping this trip would be an opportunity for me to show my hometown off to my fiance, and if we can't feel safe eating out, there's little reason to go.
posted by howgenerica at 8:31 PM on July 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

Based on your responses OP, it doesn't sound like your question "how safe is it to travel to Tokyo"? is really the question you want answered? Because the answer, according to the best info available, is very safe.

I mean, if you don't trust govt reports (not saying you're right or wrong to do so), then I don't know what other reports you could possibly trust, given that - good or bad - the govt has been monitoring the area more closely than anyone else.

I totally appreciate your concern, but I don't think the criteria of "accurate assessment" that you're asking for could be satisfied by anybody at the moment. In light of that, I would suggest don't go; you obvs really don't want to go this time.
posted by smoke at 9:26 PM on July 26, 2011

Your concerns are valid, and no one should be blowing them off as paranoid. And as a current resident of Tokyo, at the risk of sounding alarmist, my take is that if you're so very worried about the radiation levels here in the atmosphere and in the food, then you shouldn't come. You say you want an accurate assessment of the possible risks, but you also point out that you don't trust the government reports. Which is completely understandable and I totally agree with you, but then whose reports are you willing to trust?

Do you read Japanese? If so, here is the blog by Professor Kunihiko Takeda of Chubu University that I've been following since the Fukushima accident. I've known him for years and trust what he has to say, though admittedly he can be a bit extreme sometimes. This is what he's suggesting how to spend this summer in the irradiated areas.

Also, Professor Hiroaki Koide of Kyoto University is another source that you could trust. Google his name and you'll find other articles.

But both these professors aren't saying that it's totally safe here. If you're looking for concrete reassurance that everything is A-OK in Tokyo, then you aren't going to find any. Because things aren't OK and won't be for a long time, if ever. The food here is most definitely contaminated, and currently it's hard to tell if what I'm buying is perfectly safe or not, though I do try to be selective. Once you're eating out, forget it; it's impossible to tell if what you're eating is safe. There are reportedly various "hot spots" in Chiba and east Tokyo where the radiation levels are almost equal to those in some of the certified evacuation zones around Fukushima. Truth be told, I'm anxious about my teenager son and his health, but I'm doing everything I can under the circumstances and otherwise just hoping for the best.

I hope I don't sound all doom and gloom, but that's the reality. It's not "safe" here anymore, and never will be, if by "safe" you mean "same as before 3/11." If you decide to come here, you do so at your own risk.

Having written all that, however, since I imagine you'll only be visiting for however many days or weeks and will be leaving after that, unless you're planning on bringing a baby or toddler along with you and rolling around in the grass or dirt in parks, the total amount of radiation you accumulate during your stay should be negligible. But that's just my layman's opinion, of course.
posted by misozaki at 10:04 PM on July 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

I'm in Kansai and I've not though more than a second about the danger from Fukushima to myself, my wife or my baby daughter. Yes some products will make it out with increased radiation levels, that's inevitable, but it's not like the only food you'll be eating is from the effected areas. Also what about all that other food you eat everyday? What about the pesticides and other poisons in the foods you eat back in the USA? And what about the millions of people in Tokyo who are living there who have gone back to there lives?

Safety is relative. I totally disagree with the tone of Misozaki post. Many of the people I follow on Twitter and know personally up in Tokyo don't seem to be as concerned about the radiation and are not that pessimistic about the situation as she is.

There's going to be many untimely deaths related to the FNPP disaster, but those deaths aren't going to be someone spending a few weeks in Tokyo.

The sad thing is that it was a man-made disaster and could have been prevented. But, we gotta keep on living our lives and being happy to be alive and visiting your family is an important part of that.
posted by sleepytako at 11:10 PM on July 26, 2011

I don't know the risk for sure, but if you don't feel comfortable, then you shouldn't go. You are not obligated to put yourself in danger because your parents live in Tokyo. If I were in your shoes, I'd postpone this trip for sure based on what some are saying about food contamination. Your concern isn't silly and it obviously doesn't mean that you don't care about your parents, and if someone suggests otherwise, take it with a grain of salt. Just trust your gut on this one.
posted by mudlark at 11:23 PM on July 26, 2011

Also, we do not all eat poison and pesticide laden food in the US. That is a ridiculous argument for why it's OK to eat some irradiated food in Tokyo. As that commentor suggests, it is inevitable that people in Japan will be exposed to food with higher levels of radiation, but what is not inevitable is that the OP will be exposed--the OP may choose to not be exposed by staying in the US. The question is about exposure, not about whether visiting family is important.
posted by mudlark at 11:32 PM on July 26, 2011

As a compromise, could you visit your parents for a week, then head somewhere else in Japan with them as a family outing? The fact that you'd be less stressed about this, perhaps, in a place you feel is safer might make the difference between an OK holiday and a great one.
posted by mdonley at 11:47 PM on July 26, 2011

That might have come across wrong in my original comment Mudlark:

My point was that the possible risk of eating food exposed to radiation in Tokyo could be just as bad as eating food that has been treated with some of the pesticides or other chemicals used in treating food around the world (and in Japan). It's a loose-loose scenario to be sure, but at least with one of them you get to see your family.
posted by sleepytako at 11:49 PM on July 26, 2011

Here's an article, dated April 1, explaining that the levels of radiation in Tokyo are only slightly higher than New York, and half that of England, where radon levels are higher than other parts of the world.

Money quote:

“Whatever the radiation in Tokyo at the moment, you can be fairly sure it is lower than natural background levels in many parts of the world.”

Still, food remains a concern. I'd avoid beef in particular.
posted by Gordion Knott at 2:58 AM on July 27, 2011

The team is aggregating monitoring data from across the country and is doing tests themselves.

More info here: Japan's citizen scientists map radiation, DIY-style

I live in Tokyo, and have family I need to worry about here, and I have chosen to stay and live my life here.

If you're that concerned about visiting for a few days (I would not be- you'll get much more radiation exposure from your plane flight than any time you'd spend in Japan) then I'd say postpone your trip until such time that you will be comfortable visiting.
posted by gen at 5:22 AM on July 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

The biggest problem with radioactive contamination of food is those isotopes that are water soluble (caesium-137 is the most well known of these; iodine is much less soluble).

If you're particularly worried about contaminated food (in my opinion, you shouldn't be) then you should avoid food that depends heavily on water taken up recently. Avoid fresh vegetables and fresh (grazing-fed) meats.
posted by alby at 5:31 AM on July 27, 2011

I have no more than a layman's understanding of this subject, but here are a couple of articles that might give perspective to the radiation levels being found in food in Tokyo.

First, the article you mentioned from the New York Times about beef. Includes info on how many times the food exceeds official radiation limits.

Second, an article that actually has the numbers on the official radiation limits.

Third, the wikipedia entry on banana equivalent doses.

Fourth, for a tenuous glimmer of hope, the wikipedia entry on radiation hormesis.

With all this data, and a little while spent figuring out your unit conversions, perhaps you'll have a better idea of the danger of possibly-contaminated food in Tokyo. Good luck!
posted by sunnichka at 12:04 PM on July 27, 2011

Also, this thread is discussing food issues in Tokyo right now.
posted by sunnichka at 5:37 PM on July 27, 2011

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