Radioactive caribou on the radar

The Porcupine caribou herd is being tested for radioactivity. "It's not something we usually test for," said Yukon research scientist Mary Gamberg.

The Porcupine caribou herd is being tested for radioactivity.

“It’s not something we usually test for,” said Yukon research scientist Mary Gamberg.

But after Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident in March, people started asking Gamberg about potential radioactive fallout.

“It’s a natural question that came up,” she said. “So we decided to test Yukon caribou for Cesiun-137.”

This radioactive isotope is commonly found after radioactive waste enters the atmosphere, said Gamberg.

It gets into the lichen and the caribou eat it, she said.

After Chernobyl, reindeer in Europe became radioactive. And they remained radioactive for more than 15 years.

Now, there are similar fears about the Porcupine caribou.

But Dr. Brendan Hanley isn’t worried.

“There is no indication there is any risk of radioactive fallout,” said the Yukon’s chief medical officer of health.

“I would be completely surprised if there were any signs of radiation effects.”

Whitehorse has a radiation monitoring station run by Health Canada. And there was a little bump in radiation after Japan’s disaster, he said.

“But it’s really no different than background radiation.

“We also get a little bump when it rains, because this increases the background radiation.”

The Porcupine caribou herd is sampled annually for contaminants, said Hanley.

Usually the meat is tested for substances like organic chlorine and heavy metals, like cadmium.

“We want to ensure that these traditional foods are safe to eat,” he said.

The last time Yukon caribou meat was tested for radioactivity was after Chernobyl, 25 years ago.

“There was a little bump then, but not enough to pose a health risk,” sad Hanley.

Even if there is radiation found in the lichen the caribou eat, as it works its way through the food chain it becomes diluted, he said.

The current tests are being done “as due diligence,” he added.

This fall, Gamberg will test 20 meat samples for radioactivity.

These samples will then be compared to frozen archived samples from past years.

“Because we don’t usually test for radiation we need to go back to our archives,” she said.

The results should be out by March, said Gamberg.

Yukoners shouldn’t be worried, she added.

“They should be assured because there was an accident, and now a potential issue, and we are looking at it.

“This is environmental monitoring working well.”

Contact Genesee Keevil at

gkeevil@yukon-news.com