This isn’t a subject that food processors think about and I probably would not have written this column had it not been for a couple of articles on radionuclides in foods that caught my attention. One article was a joint FAO/WHO report on radioactive contaminants in foods and the other was a peer-reviewed research paper in the Journal of Food Protection on the distribution of radioactive cesium in rice. I asked myself, what programs does Canada have in place to deal with radionuclides today?
What is radioactivity?
Radioactivity is the release of particles and energy when atoms breakdown (decay) or when atoms react to extremely high energy. Scientists call radioactive elements radionuclides. Radioactivity occurs naturally in rocks and soil and can be produced artificially. Life on this planet has co-existed with radioactive elements since the dawn of time.
Today, most people’s understanding of radioactivity is in connection with life-saving medical applications (millions of diagnostic tests and treatments are done annually) or the destructive outcomes of WWII on Japan and other more recent events, namely the nuclear arms race that started in the 1950s and finally ended in 1980, Three Mile Island (1979 – U.S.), Chernobyl (1986 – Ukraine) and Fukushima (2011 – Japan). There is a dichotomy of gratitude and fear surrounding nuclear energy, an application we wouldn’t want to live without and another application we would rather live without. The same dichotomy exists for genetically engineered products for pharmaceutical and food applications.
Canadian Radiological Monitoring Network (CRMN)
Canada established the CRMN in 1959 to monitor the environmental release of radioactivity (fallout) from nuclear weapons atmospheric tests. Today the Network is managed by the Radiation Surveillance Division of Health Canada’s Radiation Protection Bureau (RPB). The CRMN consists of 26 monitoring stations across the country that routinely collect and test air and water vapor, rain water, potable water and milk samples for radioactivity.
Health Canada has conducted a series of “Total Diet Studies” since 2000 to assess the presence of radioactivity in the food staples in major cities across Canada. Results from these studies for 2010 (St. John’s), 2011 (Ottawa), 2012 (Vancouver) and 2013 (Montreal) are available from Health Canada (email to [email protected], requesting: HPFB BCS TDS RAD-2010-13 in either English or French). In every one of these studies there is no evidence for any concern. Health Canada also tested 169 samples of foods imported from Japan after the Fukushima nuclear power plant calamity. All test results were below Canadian action levels.
Other nuclear safety programs
The federal government implemented a “Federal Nuclear Emergency Plan” (FNEP) in 1984 as part of an Emergency Management Act. The FNEP is managed and maintained by Health Canada’s RPB, Environmental and Radiation Health Services Directorate and Healthy Environments and Consumer Safety Branch. The 5th Edition of FNEP Master Plan was released in January 2014.
Health Canada remains the gate keeper of the plan, which now includes 16 other federal government institutions whose mandates include public health and safety, food security, transportation, foreign affairs, boarder security, atomic energy and the Privy Council Office that would take the lead in a nuclear emergency. Surprisingly the Department of National Defense is not among the cohort. Provincial and territorial public health and safety jurisdictions collaborate closely with their federal counterparts in executing emergency measures.
Monitoring nuclear safety is a global endeavor today. Most developed countries around the world co-operate in monitoring radionuclide levels in their food supplies and environments. This data is shared in real time with all participants. In addition to all of what has just been described, Canada regularly conducts emergency exercises to both test and ensure its nuclear safety programs are effective.
Canadians need not be concerned about radionuclide contamination of their food supply. We should feel secure in the knowledge that Canada has monitoring programs in place to alert us of any nuclear threats. This country is also constantly testing and updating its emergency response programs to address an emergency should it arise.