Are the Radioactive Fukushima Traces in California Wine Harmful?

Radiation produced by Japan's Fukushima nuclear disaster has been found in Californian wine almost seven years after the event, according to a study published on the preprint server—but the good news is that it won't harm you.

In March 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and powerful tsunami struck Japan, causing a meltdown of the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which released radioactive material into the surrounding areas.

Despite California being more than 5,000 miles from Japan, a team of nuclear physicists from the Centre d'Etudes Nucléaires de Bordeaux-Gradignan wanted to find out whether they would find higher levels of a radioactive isotope known as cesium-137 in wines produced in the state after the disaster, compared with those that were made before.

"In January 2017, we came across a series of Californian wines from vintage 2009 to 2012," the authors wrote in the study. "The Fukushima incident resulted in a radioactive cloud that has crossed the Pacific Ocean to reach the west coast of the United States. And in Northern California, there is the Napa Valley. The idea was then to see if, as is the case in Europe following the Chernobyl accident, we could detect a variation in the cesium-137 level in these wines."

To do this, they tested 18 bottles of Californian rosé and cabernet sauvignon made between 2009 and 2012. They found that levels of cesium-137 were elevated in wines produced after the disaster. The Cabernet sauvignon, for example, contained double the amount.

However, there's no need to worry, because the levels of cesium-137 found in the wine are too low to be dangerous to humans.

"Information from Federal agencies, State programs, as well as the California Department of Public Health's (CDPH) own sampling results, concluded there are no health and safety concerns to California residents," the CDPH told Newsweek. "CDPH's Radiologic Health Branch performs weekly air monitoring along the California coast and tabulates and publishes the data on its website. During and after the Fukushima incident, RHB increased its monitoring and also published that data on its website."

Cesium-137 can be used by scientists as a marker for man-made nuclear activity because it is not present in the environment before 1952, when the first nuclear tests began. In the '50s and '60s, large amounts were produced, dispersed and deposited worldwide as a result of such tests. Other sources, such as radioactive waste and nuclear accidents like Fukushima, can also release cesium-137 into the environment.

In fact, the isotope is so widespread that most wines produced after 1952 contain at least a small amount of it. Because of this, the techniques used by researchers to detect cesium-137 can also be used to check for fraud in vintage wines made before this year.

In a statement released in 2011 following the disaster, the World Health Organization (WHO) also allayed the concerns of those living outside Japan regarding the contamination of food and drink products.

"Radiation levels measured to date in other countries are far below the level of background radiation that most people are exposed to in everyday circumstances and do not present health or transportation safety hazards," the WHO said.

"Minute amounts of radioactive cesium and iodine might be found using very sensitive detection methods, but this should not affect foods produced in other countries, as the amounts involved will be well below acceptable levels and would not pose a health concern to those who eat the food," the statement added.

People who are exposed to very high doses of cesium-137 may develop skin burns (if the isotope makes contact with the skin) or malignant tumors, which can result in a lower life expectancy, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Remarkably, there were no deaths from acute radiation sickness as a result of the Fukushima accident, according to the World Nuclear Association, because levels of contamination beyond the power plant site were not concentrated enough to cause harm.

A visitor holds a glass of wine at the Madonna Estate Winery in Napa, California, on August 26, 2014. A study has found traces of radiation from the Fukushima nuclear disaster in bottles of Californian wine. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Strangely, the chaotic evacuation of around 150,000 people turned out to be far deadlier, causing more than 1,000 deaths. Many elderly people died due to interruptions in medical care and stressful conditions, while the psychological effects of the evacuation led to widespread depression, alcoholism and suicide in the months and years following the disaster.

Several plant workers were killed at the site, but these deaths were caused by physical injuries related to the natural disasters. In total, more than 15,000 people died in Japan as a result of the tsunami and earthquake.

This article has been updated to include a statement from the California Department of Public Health.