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22nd Jan 2018
   

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Radioactive Sake?
Sun 17th Apr, 2011 - by Dave
 
I normally keep my work-life quite separate from my food-life, which, as an experimental physicist, is probably for the best. However, I recently saw a tweet which caught my attention: "RT @MelindaJoe dont let fear sink the #sake industry! http://bit.ly/et2Nit". After reading the post, which explains how a global fear of radiation contamination is beginning to impact sake brewers near Fukushima, it occured to me that this was an area to which I could contribute. My access to equipment designed specifically to measure radiation meant I could prove, scientifically and incontrovertably that the idea of radioactive sake was utter nonsense... wasn't it?

I set about to find my test sample, which turned out to be a bottle of Okunomatsu Josen Honjozo "Jizake Tokkuri". At around $100/bottle, I was considering applying for ARC funding, but for some unfathomable reason the department head did not sign off on my request to fund "Radiation contamination studies of ethanol-based volatile menisci within monosaccharide-derived organic fluids." It sounded perfectly legitimate to me!

One week and about $200 later (every good scientist requires a "control" experiment, so I had to get a second bottle) I was ready to test. I acquired my samples directly from Japan, but ensured that the sake I was testing was also available locally. You'll also notice the nitrile gloves and lab coat for safety compliance, of course! Now, stand back: it's time to try SCIENCE! Radiation can be a tricky thing to measure, so just to be clear for those who care, these tests were carried out using an F.A.G. Model FH-40F radiation dosimeter, with an internal alpha- and gamma-detector and detachable beta-probe (no that's not a euphemism). For alpha and gamma radiation, this measures radiation in Sieverts per hour, that is, the amount of radiation emitted per unit time. To get the total dose, you just multiply the reading by the number of hours of exposure.

Sample Dose per hour
micro-Sieverts per hour, +/- 0.01
Normal background radiation in Australia 0.17
Measured background radiation in this lab 0.16
Typical brain CT scan
(total dose 2.5mSv absorbed in 20 seconds)
450,000
Fukushima sake on microscope slide 0.15
Fukushima sake in beaker 0.14
~50gm Na-22 41.7
~50gm Ra-227 300


To put these results in context, I've included a typical dose you might expect to receive from a brain CT scan. As you can see, the Fukushima sake was a disappointing source of radiation, but a bloody good sake. The lower-than-background measurement results from the attenuation of background radiation levels by the combination of the glass and the sake. At this point, it seemed like a good idea to actually make sure that the meter was working, so Lachie and I went searching for a few more interesting samples. In a physics department, this is not a particularly difficult task, so pretty soon we had a nice collection of Co-60, Cs-137 and Na-22, but the piece-de-resistance was a nice hunk of radium-227 that clocked up a measly 300 micro-Sieverts per hour. You'll also notice that we're all standing around pretty close to it, and there are no lead gloves or special handling. Sure, you probably don't want to go eating the stuff, and deliberately increasing your radiation exposure is top-of-the-class-kind-of-stupid, but we're all physicists (i.e. people who actually use and understand the science of radiation) and you don't see us running for the hills from a few hundred micro-Sieverts.

If you'll excuse a small side-rant, I guess the point I'm trying to make is that if you're concerned about the possibility of increased radiation absorption, find out the facts from people who are qualified to inform you, rather than the sensationalist headlines you may read in the media. A medical doctor is, in general, not qualified to measure or calculate your radiation dose from a bottle of sake, in the same way that a physicist is not qualified to tell you how that dose might effect your biology. I say this as a physicist who is married to a doctor.

Rant aside, the take-home message I'd like to get across is that Fukushima sake is safe to drink, in the same way that taking a stroll outside or sitting in front of your computer screen reading this, is safe. As an added bonus, it tastes much better than licking your LCD screen and provides the brewers with what must be a much needed income stream, so drink up!

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