Department of Health to launch aerial background radiation survey; officials say Fukushima is not a concern


The Washington state Department of Health announced today that it will begin an aerial survey to determine background radiation levels over Seattle and Tacoma. 

 The assay will commence on Monday, July 11 and continue until July 28, 2011.  The survey will be conducted using a distinctly-marked Bell helicopter that will fly in tight grid-patterns 600 feet apart at an altitude of 300 feet, and at speeds of up 70 mph.

 Department of Health (DOH) officials say that this is research to establish the baseline levels of radiation that exist in our area, and is not a response to the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, Japan, which occured in March, 2011.  In fact, this research was first planned in 2009, and has been instituted by the federal Department of Homeland Security.

 Regarding the incident at Fukushima, state health officials say that initials readings here in Washington during March and April showed “measurable amounts” of radiation, particularly the dangerous Iodine-131, in air and milk samples, but they were not deemed harmful.

 Further, contamination from Japan since then has dissipated to the extent that radiation is no longer found by the state’s measuring devices.

 “We have not seen measurable amounts of Iodine -131 in our air and rain samples since April, 2011, nor has any been found in milk,” declared Tim Church, communications officer for the DOH.

 Iodine 131 is especially harmful because it has the ability to accumulate in the environment, most notably in milk from cows that eat grass watered by irradiated rain.  In addition, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) monitors milk throughout the country for Iodine-131, and they have a sampling station in Spokane, where the increased levels were discovered in April.

 Donn Moyer, chief of communications for the DOH said that not enough radiation spewed from Fukushima for a long enough period of time to see any accumulative effects in Washington state.

 “We only received low levels of radiation, and for only a short period of time,” Moyer said.

 Along those lines, Mr. Church added, “There have been no short-term or long-term impacts.”

 Church also stated that there is “no reason to take unusual measures to protect yourself from radiation,” such as placing plastic sheets over vegetable gardens to protect leafy green vegetables from absorbing irradiated rain water.

 Mark Henry, the manager of the Radiation Protection division of the DOH told the Mountain News that he did not think the aerial survey would include the towns of south Pierce County or Yelm, in Thurston County.

 “They’ll be mostly over the urban areas of King County, and in Pierce they’ll be flying over Tacoma and Federal Way,” Henry said.

 In addition, Henry said that there is not enough contaminated material from the Fukushima nuclear reactors coming to our shores to even raise the background radiation levels here in western Washington.

 “We’re not going to see an elevated level in our samples due to Fukushima,” Henry announced.

 Editor’s Note:   Below is a transcript of the press release announcing the aerial fly-overs, and a follow-up list of Frequently Asked Questions related to the survey.


Radiation levels and locations to be mapped in Puget Sound by helicopter

OLYMPIA – Lessons from the nuclear incidents in Fukushima, Japan show the value of a project to measure background radiation levels in several parts of the state.  A low-flying helicopter will gather radiological readings this summer, starting next week around Puget Sound.

Radiation detection equipment mounted in a helicopter will measure “gamma emitters” like cesium and radioactive iodine — materials that would likely increase in a radiation emergency.  This kind of material releases X-rays, or gamma radiation, a type that can be easily measured from the helicopter.  State radiation experts expect to find natural radioactivity and material produced by licensed radioactive material users such as hospitals.

The helicopter will fly a grid pattern at an altitude of about 300 feet to collect data. Mapping the normal amounts and location of radioactive material will provide a baseline for comparison to assess contamination if there were a nuclear incident like the events in Fukushima.  Sampling in that area of Japan after the nuclear reactors were damaged produced radiation readings, but there was no baseline for comparison so it was unclear how much higher the levels had grown.

The Washington State Department of Health is overseeing the project as the U.S. Department of Energy’s Remote Sensing Laboratory Aerial Measurement System conducts the flyover.  The project has been in planning since 2009 and is funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The data collected will be part of a report after quality assurance review.  The report will be available to the public, though some information may be withheld for national security reasons.  If levels of radioactivity are high enough to pose any health concern, the source will be investigated.

The flyovers will start in Seattle and Bellevue before moving to other areas of King and Pierce Counties, includingTacoma.  During the Puget Sound flyovers, the helicopter will be based at Boeing Air Field and will make daily flights between July 11 and 28.

Information about the project is available on the agency Aerial Radiological Survey website (

Public questions can be sent to  The Department of Health website ( is your source for a healthy dose of information.  Also, find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.


Why is there a helicopter flying low over my neighborhood?

The state Department of Health asked for federal support to measure the background levels of radiation in sections of King and Pierce counties.  This information will give us a radiation baseline.  The low altitude provides a more accurate measurement of background radiation.

What is a radiological or radiation baseline and why is it needed?

A radiation baseline tells us how much background radiation is currently found in an area.  This baseline would be used to compare against measurements taken after a radiation emergency occurs.  It helps state and local officials quickly determine where potential health effects may exist and to warn people in the affected area.

What kind of radioactive material do you expect to find, and what are the sources?

We expect to detect natural radioactive material.  We may also find evidence that licensed radioactive material users are doing work in approved locations such as medical centers and road construction.  If we find radiation levels above expected background, or that are not from our approved licensees, we’ll investigate the source of the radiation.  The investigative team consists of federal, state, and local response personnel.

Are you doing the survey to find out how much radioactive material came from Japan?

This project is looking for radioactive material that exists in our environment.  The survey isn’t focused on radioactive material from Japan.  The amount of material from Japanwas extremely low and will not be detected by equipment on the helicopter.

Did the nuclear reactor damage in Japan lead to this project?

This project isn’t related to the disaster in Japan.  It began in September 2009, well before the earthquake in Fukushima.  The helicopter flyover is part of a multi-phase project to improve our state readiness to respond to radiation emergencies.

Are you going to provide the survey results, and if so, how?

The survey results will be provided after all the reports have been completed and the quality of the information has been verified.  The Department of Health will work with the agencies that are part of the survey to determine how the results will be shared.

What kind of radiation does the helicopter detect?

The helicopter detects gamma radiation.  This type of radiation can travel the distance between the ground and the helicopter, so it’s easy to detect during a flyover.

Is there radiation you cannot detect?

We will not be able to detect beta or alpha radiation on the ground.  The distance between the helicopter and the ground is too great to be able to measure these types of radiation from the air.

If you find something that can cause health problems, will you tell us, and if so, how?

We will tell the public if we find radioactive material that can cause health problems.  The notification would be sent to the news media, and posted on the websites of state and local health and emergency management agencies.

Who is responsible for the flyover?

The state Department of Health has been working with local emergency management and public health officials to coordinate the project.  The state Department of Health is responsible for assuring that the survey is completed properly.

Who is paying for the flyover?

The flyover is funded by a U.S. Department of Homeland Security grant.

If you find a lot of radiation in a location, will it be cleaned up?

We do not expect to see any areas emitting harmful levels of radiation.  If we do find areas that may be harmful, action will be taken to protect the public. Environmental cleanup decisions and activities are made in coordination with the state Department of Ecology, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and local officials.

Are you going to fly over the entire state, and if not, why not?

We’re flying over sections of King and Pierce counties using federal money designated for use in these areas.  To expand the area surveyed, more funding would be needed.

Why aren’t you flying over the Hanford Nuclear Reservation?

The U.S. Department of Energy already has data for the Hanford Nuclear Reservation so there’s no need to duplicate that work.

Contact Information

  • Questions or comments can be sent to the Washington State Department of Health.  
  • Contact the Office of Radiation Protection at 360-236-3300.
  • For information on the U.S. Department of Energy’s Remote Sensing Laboratory Aerial Measuring System call 702-295-1755



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2 Responses to Department of Health to launch aerial background radiation survey; officials say Fukushima is not a concern

  1. catalina says:

    Thanks! Much needed follow-up.

  2. Pingback: Scrutiny by local nuclear watchdog group triggers concerns over Fukushima radiation | The Mountain News – WA

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