Chemicals in tsunami debris could pose coastal threat

The spill and spread of industrial chemicals across the coastline of British Columbia is a possibility as slower-moving tsunami debris from Japan approaches the west coast, according to experts observing its movements.
Two photos show the same coast in northeastern Japan on March 12, 2011, before and after a devastating earthquake and tsunami hit the area. (Associated Press/Kyodo News)

The spill and spread of industrial chemicals across the coastline of British Columbia is a possibility as slower-moving tsunami debris from Japan approaches the west coast, according to experts observing its movements.

The risk of chemical contamination is sizable, especially considering that many of the tsunami-affected areas on the Japanese coast were industrial and used many different types of toxic chemicals in manufacturing operations.

"[Chemical contamination] could be a real threat," said Dr. M. Sanjayan, the lead scientist at conservation group the Nature Conservancy. "For example, it's very hard to imagine how 50 drums [filled] with something could all show up at the same time, unless it's an event like this. That's where it can be a little dangerous.

"Finding one drum of, say, paint thinner, or something you might find in your garage, it's not hugely toxic. But if you find 50 of them all washed up on a rocky shore and then breaking and leaking, then you have some problems."

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is one of the few organizations keeping tabs on debris movement, constructing models that attempt to predict the movement of the debris as it follows ocean currents. It is also handling cleanup efforts in the U.S.

Dianna Parker of the NOAA notes that the majority of the debris is heavier and slower-moving than the more buoyant items that have been found on coastlines in recent months. Objects that ride high, such as plastic containers, bottles and buoys, travel much faster than intact and possibly dangerous industrial chemical containers. The bulk of the debris pulled out to sea by the tsunami is still suspended north of the main Hawaiian Islands in the Pacific.

Sanjayan says that both the Canadian and U.S. governments could do more in terms of developing a plan for coastal communities in case toxic debris washes ashore. "If one tiny community got hit, it could wipe out their tourism industry for the year or it could wipe out their fishing for a year."


Concern about industrial chemicals washed out to sea by the March 2011 tsunami was previously overshadowed by the fear that some of the debris could be radioactive, but that has eased.

The tsunami damaged emergency generators at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, causing a loss of coolant and partial meltdown of some reactors. Internal explosions then fractured containment vessels, leading to a radioactive leak that continues to this day.

'One thing that's all but certain is that radioactivity will not be a big player in whatever does arrive.'—Kathryn Higley, Oregon State University

In the United States and Canada, possible radioactive elements in floating debris became a pressing issue as experts began warning that objects would begin to arrive on North American shores by the end of 2011 and continue to do so well into 2013. However, experts have since played down the dangers of such an event occurring.

Sanjayan said that any radioactivity making landfall is unlikely, mainly due to the great distances and the amount of time of being exposed to water, which blocks and dilutes the radiation. 

"So I don't really think that's a big danger," he said. "Most of the debris got sent out in the first wave; the reactor didn't breach and radioactivity didn't happen until many hours and days later [when most of the debris was already gone]."

Kathryn Higley, the head of the department of nuclear engineering and radiation health physics at Oregon State University, concurs that the risk of radiation is unlikely, saying that "it is possible that some radioactive material remains … [however,] all expectations are that it will be hugely diluted because of salt water.

"One thing that's all but certain is that radioactivity will not be a big player in whatever does arrive."

Human remains

Curt Ebbesmeyer, co-creator of the Ocean Surface Current Simulator, believes that based on updated models, the amount of tsunami debris arriving on the west coast of North America is expected to peak in October 2012.

However, junk and debris might not be the only thing washing up on shore, as he told a tsunami symposium in Port Angeles, Wash., on May 21. Acknowledging a grisly truth, Ebbesmeyer believes that the remains of people washed out to sea in the disaster may also make landfall over the next year.

"We're expecting 100 sneakers with bones in them," he told the audience.

Ebbesmeyer emphasized that beachcombers should try to show respect for any remains that they find, as "that may be the only remains that a Japanese family is ever going to have of their people that were lost."

Debris pattern

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The Nature Conservancy and the NOAA believe that publicity surrounding the debris field will bring attention to the fact that ocean-going debris from the tsunami merely added to an ever-growing pile of junk accumulating in the Pacific and on shorelines. The estimated five million tonnes of debris from the Japanese tsunami represents less than one per cent of what's already out there in the Pacific. 

"The key thing is not to put more single-use plastics and disposable items into the ocean," says Sanjayan, pointing out that "80 per cent of [trash] comes from landfills and land-based sources. For me, that's a much bigger issue, and [the debris] will probably raise people's awareness of it."

It's not clear how closely the debris will be monitored in the coming months, as governments in both the United States and Canada have, for the most part, put the issue on the back burner. According to Sanjayan, after a boost to its funding following the initial shock of the disaster last year, this year's $5 million NOAA budget could be trimmed by up to 25 per cent, a possible indication that decision-makers have been persuaded that issue is not pressing enough to warrant a continuing response.

However, the province, federal government, local governments and volunteers have joined together to co-ordinate cleanup efforts through a Tsunami Debris Co-ordinating Committee. They have compiled detailed FAQs to address any concerns, but ask that if anyone finds tsunami debris that appears to be personal effects that they contact the NOAA at to return it to its appropriate owner.