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Pacific Salmon: Radioactive, or Safe to Eat?

July 2015

Is Pacific Salmon Radioactive?

Salmon is a great source of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, but is salmon from the Pacific Ocean safe to eat, or have radioactive substances seeping into the Pacific Ocean from Japan's crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant made this popular fish a health risk? Let's find out.

What Do Studies Say?

While many fisheries in Japan were closed because of high levels of radioactivity, many authorities maintain that the amount of radioactive substances found in fish caught in the eastern part of the Pacific Ocean is so low that Americans shouldn't worry about it. In 2012, the Washington Department of Health began testing fish and shellfish caught off the Pacific coast of the United States for levels of cesium-134, cesium-137 and strontium-90, radioactive isotopes that are produced in nuclear power reactors and that have been leaking into the Pacific Ocean since the Fukushima disaster that struck Japan in 2011. So far, seafood samples collected by the agency have included salmon, albacore tuna, steelhead, halibut, razor clams and mussels. As of the writing of this article, all tests – including those that tested salmon caught off the Pacific Coast of the United States and in the Snake River – have found levels of radiation that are well below what the state agency would deem a public health risk, suggesting that Pacific salmon is safe to eat.

Also the FDA's March 2014 Fukushima Update states that radioactive substances released by the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan do not appear to be present at harmful levels in FDA-regulated foods sold in the US, including fish caught off the coast of the United States. The FDA tests foods for radioactive substances as part of its routine surveillance, through the Toxic Elements in Food and Foodware monitoring program and through its Total Diet Study. In addition, it regularly looks at the findings of other US Government agencies, including the environmental radiation monitoring program (RadNet) run by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as well as findings of scientific publications and reports from both private and public institutions, including oceanographic research institutions.

Why Is Pacific Fish Not More Radioactive?

In a 2014 article published by WHOI, the world's leading non-profit oceanographic research organization, biogeochemist Ken Buesseler provides insights that explain why fish caught off the Pacific Coast only contains very low levels of radioactive substances. First, levels of radioactive substances released by the Fukushima nuclear plant are expected to be thousands of times lower after they get mixed with the vast amount of water in the Pacific Ocean and before they arrive on the West Coast of North America. Second, most fish do not migrate far from home, so in most cases, you won't have to worry about wild fish swimming from the affected areas around Fukushima to the West Coast of the United States. That said, some fish, such as the Pacific bluefin tuna, can swim long distances and could pick up radioactive substances in their feeding grounds off Japan. However, cesium begins to flush out of an exposed fish soon after it enters waters that are less contaminated by radiation from Fukushima. This means that by the time the exposed tuna reaches the eastern part of the Pacific Ocean, the cesium levels in the flesh of the fish are already 10-20 times lower. Finally, Buesseler considers the dose of radioactive cesium released by the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant insignificant in comparison with the amount of radioactive substances such as polonium-210 that naturally occur in fish.


Washington State Department of Health, 2015. Fukushima and Radioactivity in Washington. Link
U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 2014. FDA Response to the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Facility Incident, March 2014 Update. Link
Woods Hole Oceanographic, March 2011. FAQ: Radiation from Fukushima. Link

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