In tonight’s entry in The Chronicles of Dubious Science Reporting, you could track the high achievement in atomic-powered journalism by whether the copy-editors at a particular news source knew how to spell “xenon.”
In reporting the “detection” of radioactive isotopes “from Japan” in Nevada today, at least Nashville’s WTVF-TV, USA Today, and the Denver Post knew that it’s spelled “xenon.” The Las Vegas Sun, the Boston Herald, KMOV St. Louis and CBS News called it “zenon” when reprinting the Associated Press story. Whether that meant they introduced the error or the AP got it wrong and then fixed it, I don’t know.
Either way, the quantity discovered is surely irrelevant in health terms. But the source is not the EPA, which reported xenon-133 it suspected was from Fukushima detected by the US Department of Energy site in Sacramento. I believe the site the LA Times is referring to is actually a DOE site operated as part of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization monitoring. That xenon-133 was reported in Sacramento on the 18th, making the Nevada detection almost a non-story…if it were from a good source like another CTBTO or DOE site. But it’s from a somewhat sketchy one, at least as far as it’s presented in the AP story.
That source is Ted Hartwell of the Atomic Testing Museum. The Museum is a nonprofit in Paradise, Nevada that operates in partnership with the Smithsonian. I couldn’t find any scientific credentials on Hartwell’s LinkedIn Profile, but it said he’s the Program Manager of the Community Environmental Monitoring Program (CEMP) at the Desert Research Institute. So I hopped over there and…he’s an Anthropologist.
So I find it a little questionable when AP quotes him as their sole source:
Hartwell said he’s certain the isotopes came from Japan because they’re not usually detected in Nevada. But he said the readings were far below levels that could pose any health risks.
“Unless you have an accident like this (in Japan) you wouldn’t expect to see this. No doubt it’s from Japan,” Hartwell told The Associated Press.
I find it even more questionable because what the news stories didn’t mention either in this article or in the earlier articles about the more credible detection of xenon-133 by the CTBTO in Sacramento is that both of the isotopes reported, radioactive xenon-133 and iodine-131, are common products used in nuclear medicine departments in hospitals. That took an old friend of mine from high school who works in nuclear medicine, who observed, “I personally vented xenon-133 into the atmosphere yesterday, and have flushed iodine-131 urine down the toilet.”
Both xenon and iodine-131 are also waste products of nuclear reactors, and likely components of the material ejected by the hydrogen explosions at Fukushima I and the venting of radioactive steam. Strangely, with a cursory look, I couldn’t find a reference for radioactive xenon-133 coming from nuclear reactors; it’s xenon-135 that’s used as a neutron absorber in reactors. Xenon-133 is a byproduct of nuclear bombs, many of which were tested in Nevada. However, it has a very short half-life — less than six days.
Look, despite everything I do sort of trust the EPA. I trust the CTBTO even more. (Not sure I trust the DOE but hey, let’s work with them). If they say the xenon-133 in Sacramento came from Fukushima…I’m willing to run with that.
But are the atoms of xenon-133 and iodine-131 in Nevada from Fukushima I? Sure, maybe. Why would an anthropologist know that? Good question. Wish AP would answer that. And why would two isotopes that are common medical waste be “not usually detected in Nevada?” Wish they’d answer that, too, or at least give me more details about the levels detected.
It’s quite possible that Hartwell has some ridiculously obvious way to know what the source of the xenon and iodine are, but damned if the American news bothers to tell me what it is. I’d really, really like to know the methodology used, because it all seems so very sketchy. At least the news is reporting the amount of radiation as tiny — which it would have to be. But there’s just too many holes in the reporting on this story to have it mean anything, even if the EPA hadn’t already reported the arrival of xenon-133 in the U.S. over a week ago.
Incidentally, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization has been monitoring global radiation levels meticulously just like they always do. The CTBTO does it not to protect your thyroid, but to determine whether North Korea has The Bomb. That means the CTBTO is monitoring radiation at infinitesimal levels. The CTBTO site in Iceland detected radioactive fallout from Fukushima I, also at low levels.
Mixing up “xenon” (an element) and “zenon” (a Greek term related to the god Zeus) is not that big a deal. Elements are, after all, only the fundamental building blocks of nature, not something important like mutual funds or liquor. But as with all late-night news stories published on weekends, the editing got even more screwed up elsewhere. The San Jose Mercury News not only repeated the “zenon” error, but also misattributed the story, not attributing it to the Associated Press (the usual procedure in wire service stories) but crediting it to the Contra Costa Times and bylining it — I’m not kidding — as a contribution of the “Alan Smithee” of science reporters, “???”.
Does this seem nitpicky? Especially to you non-science people out there? Maybe some of you non-former-copyeditors think I’m getting uppity? Maybe some of you people are sympathetic to the plight of newspapers that can no longer afford science dictionaries? “Xenon,” incidentally, is in any dictionary, it being one of the elements in the Periodic Table and all. There’s also Wikipedia, but who trusts Wikipedia? And sure, I’ll admit that even such pinnacles of hard-news reporting as Techyum have been caught in errors occasionally. I once lackadaisically hyphenated “pigfucker,” for instance — a common error of first-year journalism students.
Okay. I’ll admit to being a hella nitpicky son-of-a-bitch. Perhaps not as nitpicky as someone without disclosed or quoted physical science credentials who scours the Nevada desert for isotopes common in medical waste and then is “sure” they’re the products of a meltdown thousands of miles away, because they’re there now and they’re usually not.
But I’m far more nitpicky, apparently, than a wire service that reports that assertion without a comment from a physical scientist of any sort.
Or can’t look up “xenon.”