As the crisis at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant continues to fester, radiation levels in Tokyo tap water are back down after spiking earlier this week. But that hasn't stopped anxious residents from stripping store shelves of bottled water. In fact, a day after officials warned that infants should not drink the city's water, the government is considering whether to import more bottled water from overseas. And although Tokyo's radiation levels have fallen — they're now at 79 becquerels per kilogram of tap water, down from 210 becquerels Tuesday — other areas are still in dire straits.
Chiba Prefecture, for one, has detected 220 becquerels at one water-filtration plant and 180 becquerels at another, prompting a warning that infants should not be given tap water there, either. And the city of Hitachi in Ibaraki Prefecture detected 298 becquerels of radioactive iodine-131, nearly enough to make the water unsafe even for adults (the upper limit is 100 becquerels for infants and 300 for adults). Water in nearby Saitama Prefecture has also reportedly tested positive for radiation levels above the limit for infants, but still below that for adults. As Japan struggles to distribute bottled water to the families of an estimated 80,000 babies — and possibly import even more bottles from abroad — Tokyo's governor urged his citizens to be calm. "I believe readings will go up and down. But even if levels exceed standards temporarily, it will be no problem as long as they stay [most of the time] within the range throughout the year," Gov. Shintaro Ishihara said at a news conference. "I hope people in Tokyo would act calmly."
Meanwhile, the situation at Fukushima Daiichi improved slightly on Thursday — at least temporarily — with emergency workers returning after two evacuations in the previous three days. Lighting was even restored to the No. 1 reactor's central control room, a key step toward restarting the troubled reactor's cooling system. But the day wasn't without danger and drama, as three workers were exposed to high-level radiation while laying cable at reactor No. 3, and two of them were hospitalized. The workers were standing in water while trying to reconnect a cable to an injection pump in the turbine building's basement, apparently unaware that the water was highly radioactive. The two hospitalized workers were diagnosed with possible beta-ray burns on their feet, and will be sent to the National Institute of Radiological Sciences for further treatment. All workers were evacuated from the turbine building basement following the incident.
Urban gardening is an important way to get fresh, local and nutritious foods into cities, but as the AP reports, it may come with hidden risks: lead, arsenic and other toxic chemicals embedded in the soil. Whether they're from old lead paint, coal-burning power plants, road runoff or garbage fires, these urban pollutants could potentially undermine a growing trend that's otherwise improving public health in cities across the U.S.
In Indianapolis, for example, a researcher recently found lead-contaminated soil in nine out of 10 urban gardens. Another study in Boston concluded that even clean, trucked-in dirt can become contaminated within a few years, possibly by windblown toxins or stormwater runoff. But despite these dangers, health and agriculture experts tell the AP that people shouldn't be scared away from urban gardening or farming — they simply need to be aware of the risks and get their soil tested. "You can control these things once you're cognizant of them," says Nicholas Basta, a soil and environmental chemistry professor at Ohio State University. "But nobody can underestimate the benefits of ... fresh-grown food."
On top of soil testing, there are proactive steps urban gardeners can take to prevent or reduce contamination. Because lead was once legal in U.S. gasoline — and is a heavy metal that sticks around in the environment — it tends to be in higher concentrations near roads. It also used to be common in paint, so neighborhoods with lots of old houses may be prone to lead contamination, too. But since lead, arsenic and other soil toxins come from a wide variety of sources, one scientist at Wellesley College tells the AP that urban gardeners should remain vigilant from season to season. "It's not a static situation," he says. "It's very prudent to characterize it at the start, but depending on the neighborhood where you're doing this, it is evolving."
There's a big, oily sheen spreading across the Gulf of Mexico, but unlike the infamous Hollywood Sheen, no one appears to be winning in this case. The U.S. Coast Guard hasn't yet confirmed whether the 20-mile sheen actually is oil, but as the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports, Louisiana officials have traced the sheen back to the West Delta Block 117 offshore drilling area, where a drilling company recently reported three discharges of oil.
Anglo-Suisse Offshore Partners first reported trouble on Friday, when it said a "downed platform" at its Platform E facility spilled half a gallon of crude during an operation to plug and abandon the well. The company later corrected itself, saying on Saturday that 1.33 gallons were actually spilled, and once again changing its story to 1.89 gallons on Monday. Since such incidents rely on companies' self-reporting, however, the exact amount of loose crude remains murky — and with an oily sheen stretching across some 20 miles of water, many are skeptical of Anglo-Suisse's numbers. As Yahoo's Brett Michael Dykes points out, "The confusion surrounding this latest Gulf spill points up a fatal flaw of America's oil pollution reporting system, which operates via a virtual honor code. Under present reporting protocols, polluters are tasked with the responsibility of turning themselves in when they're responsible for an accident — knowing all the while that a federal inspector will probably never be dispatched to investigate."
Anglo-Suisse says it has now successfully plugged the damaged well, so it appears unlikely that it will swell into a larger disaster. And the company insists it wasn't even responsible for the spill in the first place — although it isn't resisting calls for it to lead the cleanup. "We do not believe the spill along the coast is the result of our operations, however, when the Coast Guard informed us that this might be the case, the responsible thing to do was mobilize," Anglo-Suisse CEO said John Sherwood in a news release issued by the Coast Guard.
With the one-year anniversary of the 2010 Gulf oil spill less than a month away, federal investigators say they've finally figured out why the damaged well's "blowout preventer" didn't prevent a blowout. The towering structure — which sat on the sea floor, tasked with stopping any uncontrolled oil leaks — was hindered by a broken piece of drill pipe, according to a federal report released Wednesday. The blowout preventer reportedly came within just 1.4 inches of closing off the leak, a gap that was apparently created by the loose pipe fragment.
Of course, that fragment is just one piece in a much larger puzzle of what caused BP's Macondo oil well to release 5 million barrels of oil last summer. The April 20 explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon oil rig was the catalyst, and a variety of unwise decisions by BP, Transocean and Halliburton have also been implicated during a series of investigations. But at a key moment after the Deepwater Horizon exploded — when BP's blowout preventer should have contained the situation by locking down the Macondo well — the gushing torrent of oil and gas buckled a section of drill pipe. This piece of pipe then became stuck in the blowout preventer, according to the report, and even though the leak-blocking machinery was activated, the fragment made it impossible for shearing rams to close and plug the leak. They came within 1.4 inches of closing.
As many critics of offshore drilling were quick to point out on Wednesday, this raises serious concerns about the overall ability of blowout preventers to stop oil spills. "This report calls into question whether oil-industry claims about the effectiveness of blowout preventers are just a bunch of hot air," said Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass. Or, as a University of Texas petroleum expert tells the Wall Street Journal, maybe the oil industry shouldn't have grown so dependent on the blowout preventer, or BOP, to begin with. "The issue is not the BOP," says Tadeusz Patzek, chairman of the university's petroleum engineering department, "but making sure the BOP never has to be activated in such circumstances. You don't want to rely on a single device between you and eternity."
The Exxon Valdez oil spill occurs, Alaska's last pulp mill closes, and more
Photo (water bottles distributed to families in Tokyo, March 24): ZUMA Press
Photo (pea blossom at an urban farm in Brooklyn, N.Y.): ZUMA Press
Photo (aerial shot of Chandeleur Sound, La.): U.S. Geological Survey
Photo (Deepwater Horizon fire on April 20, 2010): ZUMA Press