Did Fukushima wastewater add synthetic chemicals to people’s blood?

Verdict: False
By Dong Zhe for Asia Fact Check Lab
2023.11.28
Taipei, Taiwan
Did Fukushima wastewater add synthetic chemicals to people’s blood?
Photo: RFA

Following the detection of elevated concentrations of synthetic chemicals in the blood of residents in Osaka prefecture’s city of Settsu in Japan, Chinese social media users claimed that these findings were linked to the discharge of treated wastewater from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in August 2023.

But the claim is false. The chemicals in question, known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, were not radioactive and could not have come from the treated wastewater discharged into the ocean, according to experts. Such chemicals had been detected in higher-than-safe levels in rivers and groundwater across Osaka and other Japanese prefectures several years before the wastewater release. 

The claim, shared here on China’s popular social media platform Weibo on Nov. 13, said: 

“Some residents of Japan have abnormal blood tests, and those who survive in the future are all superhuman!” 

The post was shared alongside three screenshots, the first two of which show the reaction of Japanese citizens to the PFAS pollution and the third of which depicted a press conference.

PFAS, a group of nearly 15,000 synthetic chemicals, have been used in industrial and consumer products such as food packaging, non-stick sprays and firefighting foams since the 1940s.

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Large numbers of netizens on Weibo say the higher than normal levels of PFAS found in residents of Settsu is related to Japan’s decision to discharge treated wastewater into the sea at Fukushima. (Screenshot/Weibo)

The claim began to circulate online after Japanese media outlets reported that the largest PFAS epidemiological survey in the country had started in Osaka. 

Harmful concentrations of PFOA, a type of PFAS, detrimental to health upon consumption, have been identified in rivers, groundwater, soil and crops in Settsu, located in Osaka prefecture. Additionally, elevated amounts of these chemicals have been found in the blood of local residents, Japanese news outlet Tansa reported on Nov. 11.

Lee Cheng-Shiuan, an assistant researcher for the Research Center for Environmental Changes at the Academia Sinica in Taiwan, said he believes there is no link between findings in Settsu and the discharged wastewater. 

While 80% of the wastewater may also contain PFAS, the concentration levels are very low and it isn’t necessarily related to nuclear power, he explained. 

“Several industries including nuclear plants use products containing PFAS in their production process. Such machines likely could have released the chemicals into the pipelines discharging the wastewater at Fukushima,” said Lee. 

Lee added that since Japan’s nuclear power plants are mostly located by the sea and do not rely on river water for cooling, it would be unlikely for the abnormal levels of PFAS in Osaka’s rivers and groundwater to have come from the plants. 

Separately, a representative from Osaka’s Environmental Management Office also told AFCL that the PFOA found in Settsu is a non-radioactive substance unrelated to the wastewater discharge. 

Keyword searches found that Japan has experienced unusually high levels of PFAS across various prefectures for several years, with many media reports on this issue predating the discharge of wastewater from Fukushima as seen here, here and here

PFAS’ impact on human health

Lee from the Academia Sinica said determining PFAS’s long-term health effects is challenging due in part to the fact that most people are exposed to them in low concentrations over long periods of time, as well as the fact that such chemicals are far from the only pollutants found in everyday life. 

While PFAS are common in the environment, skin contact only leads to minimal absorption, and ingestion via contaminated water or food is the main concern for human exposure, Lee noted. 

However, studies and a U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences report link significant PFAS exposure to health risks like cancer, liver damage, metabolic changes, weakened immunity, and reduced fetal growth.

Translated by Shen Ke. Edited by Taejun Kang and Malcolm Foster.

Asia Fact Check Lab (AFCL) is a branch of RFA established to counter disinformation in today’s complex media environment. Our journalists publish both daily and special reports that aim to sharpen and deepen our readers’ understanding of public issues.

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