Protecting Against Radiation Contamination – The Japanese Nuclear Reactor Explosion a Year Later

By: Kelly Garnick

March 11th of last year began as a typical winter day in New England and a routine day at the Winchester Engineering and Analytical Center (WEAC), the FDA laboratory that tests for radiation contamination of food and medical products, and where I have worked as a radio-chemist for 22 years. The reverie of that Friday abruptly changed when we learned that a powerful 8.9 magnitude earthquake and the resulting tsunami had devastated Japan’s eastern coast and that “something possibly was happening” at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors located in the area. 

Our small laboratory has responded to radiation-related public health concerns for more than 50 years and has a legacy that includes responding to nuclear weapons testing and the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl disasters. WEAC analyzes food samples for potential radioactive contamination daily and has planned, prepared, trained, and drilled for all types of emergencies.  And now we were faced with an actual disaster scenario – were we really ready?

Winchester Engineering and Analytical Center (WEAC) Building frontageEven before receiving any official assignments, we knew our WEAC team would be central to protecting U.S. consumers from any contaminated food and other FDA regulated products. We were excited, yet determined about this new situation – and knew it was unlikely we would be able to turn our Blackberries off for the foreseeable future. 

Because of the extensive devastation and infrastructure damage caused by the earthquake and tsunami, shipping came to a standstill in Japan. We prepared ourselves for an onslaught of samples but didn’t get any until late in the month. The first that arrived were fresh fish imports collected in Los Angeles. To ensure these perishable imported products were not contaminated, we committed to a two-hour turn around time for testing the samples and getting them back into commerce. The samples arrived first thing in the morning, which meant activity at WEAC began at midnight. We had to finish our calibration checks, background counts, and other preparations to be ready to act quickly as soon as the samples arrived.

Kelly Garnick filleting fishOne day is seared into my memory — April 19th. Four separate shipments with 69 samples from Japan arrived at WEAC’s door. One analyst arrived early to prepare instruments as two or three other analysts “claimed” their fresh fish samples and immediately began filleting and analyzing their catch. Before noon a second shipment arrived with 30 more samples. It seemed like the shipments were coming non-stop. Our staff of engineers and radio-chemists was cross-trained, but the volume was stretching our capacity. And just as our work day was ending, just when we thought we might be able to catch our breath, another shipment of more than twenty samples arrived!

Like all FDA employees during an emergency, we readily put aside family outings, soccer games, and the like, to protect the public health. In the past year, WEAC has tested more than 1,200 samples of drugs, devices, and various foods, including fresh fish, spices, curry, sake, and pet food imported from the affected area in Japan.  We also did testing for the Department of Defense to ensure that rations for our troops were safe. Bottom line, there were no reported incidents of American consumers coming in contact with foods or medical products contaminated by the radiation from the nuclear explosions. Because of our work, WEAC is now the prime lab used by DoD when it needs to ensure that the rations our troops eat are safe from radiation contamination.

A year ago, because of our training and simulation drills, we hoped we’d be ready to handle a real-world disaster when it came. Now, one year after experiencing an actual disaster in Japan, we know we’re ready.

Kelly Garnick is a Radio-Chemist in FDA’s Office of Regulatory Affairs, Winchester (MA) Engineering and Analytical Center