In February 2016, a series of photos purportedly showing the ill effects that the Fukushima nuclear disaster had on marine life was widely shared on social media. A popular Facebook post, which appeared to be a rewrite of an article published by web site Superstation95 in October 2015, reported that North Americans were eating seafood filled with “cancerous tumors”:
Americans and Canadians have been eating radioactive fish filled with bloody, cancerous tumors, as a result of contamination with radiation in the Pacific ocean from the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.
While the Daiichi meltdowns and subsequent radiation releases did have a major effect on aquatic life, these photos do not illustrate those effects. For instance, the lead photo of the article, purportedly showing the “bloody” and “cancerous” tumors caused by nuclear radiation, was actually taken in 2004, years before the Fukushima disaster started leaking radiation into the sea:
Superstation 95 touted these images as undeniable proof of Fukushima’s effect on seafood:
The government and the nuclear power industry claim we have nothing to worry about. When you see the photos below, you may want decide for yourself if they’re telling the truth.
The article then shows a picture of “cancerous tumors in salmon” purportedly linked to a rise in nuclear radiation in oceans:
Again, however, the above-displayed image was taken prior to the Fukushima disaster. The image also does not show cancerous tumors, or any type of tumor at all. Instead, it was lifted from Wikipedia, and shows a salmon infected with with Henneguya salminicola, a myxosporean parasite.
Another misleading photo featured University of Alberta scientist David Schindler holding a fish with a growth. The article reported that this image depicted a fish “showing classic signs of radiation-caused cancerous tumors,” but Schindler said that the fish was taken from the Athabasca River watershed, which is downstream from an oil sands industrial development — not a nuclear plant:
In addition to spreading misinformation about the effects that the Fukushima disaster had on marine life, Superstation95 attempted to revive a long-debunked rumor that sharks don’t get cancer:
Well, when they swim around the Pacific Ocean nowadays, the radiation is so terrible that even sharks are getting cancer! Recently, researchers in Australia noticed a large tumor protruding from the mouth of a great white shark, as well as another mass on the head of a bronze whaler shark. The tumor on the Great White was a historic first.
The above-displayed image was taken in 2013, and while it was an unusual sight -— the first time a tumor was spotted on a great white shark — there is no evidence that the tumor was caused by radiation from Fukushima or anywhere else. Rachel Robbins, shark biologist at the Fox Shark Research Foundation who studied the animal, said that while the cause of the tumor was unknown, industrial pollutants may have been a contributing factor:
Scientists have known for more than 150 years that sharks get cancer. And yet the belief persists that the animals don’t suffer from the disease.
That misconception is promoted in part by those who sell shark cartilage, who claim that the substance will help cure cancer, said David Shiffman, a shark researcher and doctoral student at the University of Miami. But no studies have shown that shark cartilage is an effective treatment, and the demand for the material has helped decimate shark populations, researchers say.
In total, scientists have now documented tumors in at least 23 species of sharks, including the two in the new study, Robbins said. “The main take-home message from the study is that it adds to the growing evidence of tumor formation in sharks, contrary to popular belief that sharks do not suffer from such anomalies,” Robbins told LiveScience.
It’s unknown what caused the tumors in the great white or bronzer shark. However, reports of cancerous tumors in marine animals, especially mammals, have steadily increased over the past 20 years, raising concerns that industrial pollutants or human activities may trigger the cancers, according to the study. Beluga whales have been recorded to suffer from cancer, and in areas near aluminum smelting plants, cancer is the second leading killer of the whales, the study noted.
Another misleading photo used to illustrate the effects of nuclear radiation featured a coral trout with skin cancer:
The web site reports that “the only explanation for a fish getting human-like skin cancer is exposure to radiation.” While that may be technically true, the researchers who discovered the above-displayed fish told Live Science that the fish probably got skin cancer due to UV radiation, not nuclear radiation:
The first case of skin cancer in a wild marine fish population looks eerily similar to the melanoma that plagues humans, researchers report today.
Coral trout living on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef are directly beneath the Antarctic ozone hole, the world’s largest, which is the result of the depletion of ozone in the atmosphere that normally protects humans from harmful UV rays.
“Further work needs to be carried out to establish the exact cause of the cancer, but having eliminated other likely factors such as microbial pathogens and marine pollution, UV radiation appears to be the likely cause,” study researcher Michael Sweet, of Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, said in a statement.
The following images were presented with little to no explanation, although they were, presumably, included in the article in order to imply to readers that these animals had all been victims of the Fukushima disaster:
The above photograph of shrimp was taken in 2012 in the Gulf of Mexico, and was lifted from an Al Jazeera story about the effects of the BP oil spill.
This photo of a starfish was taken in 2006 — long before the Fukushima disaster — and appears on a Wikipedia page.
This photo of a polar bear with alopecia was taken in Alaska in 2012. While researchers said that this disease has been found in both wild and captive animals, they do not know the cause. The United States Geological Survey speculated that the lesions may have been caused by numerous factors, including “man-made and natural biotoxins, radiation, contaminants, auto-immune diseases, nutritional, hormonal and environmental factors.”
However, SuperStation95 did use one photo that was directly tied to the radiation leaked from the Fukushima power plant. In August 2011, researchers detected cesium-137 and cesium-134 in 15 tuna caught off the coast of California:
While it’s true that the above-displayed bluefin tuna did show signs of radiation from Fukushima, the study’s author, Daniel Madigan, said that the levels did not come close to exceeding safety limits:
But upon analysis, the researchers found signals from Fukushima—isotopes called Cesium-134 and Cesium-137 — in all 15 samples they tested. When the team tested for the isotopes in bluefin tuna that migrated to California before the disaster and yellowfin tuna that are native to California waters, the radioactivity wasn’t present, which indicated that it came from Fukushima, Fisher said.
The amount of Cesium 134 and 137 detected in the fish “didn’t come close to exceeding safety limits,” Madigan said, noting that what was in the fish, per gram, is lower than the amount of naturally occurring radioactive potassium found per gram in a banana.
The article published by Superstation95 on 15 October 2015 (and subsequent posts on social media) used half-truths, misleading statistics, and unrelated photos in order to convince its readers that they had been ingesting radioactive seafood. While the Fukushima disaster certainly had effects on the environment and marine life, they are not adequately demonstrated by the photographs circulating in social media, nor by Superstation95.