Sean Hannity Mangles Facts And Science About Radiation While Reporting False Alarms

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Sean Hannity's lead tonight left viewers thinking Southern California is about to be a fallout zone, passengers returning from Japan to Chicago glow in the dark, and we should all have our potassium iodide pills at the ready. It's classic Fox fearmongering, meant to scare little old ladies and stoke up the heroes in the shadows.

He leads with this:

The deadly radiation leaking into the atmosphere from Japan's nuclear crisis isn't just heading for the United States, it's already here.

Oh really? I checked the radiation monitors online and I couldn't find any. But listen to Hannity's grave drone as he reports the dire news:

But first, DHS officials have confirmed that two flights departing Tokyo -- one bound for Chicago, the other for Dallas -- set off radiation alarms when they arrived in the US yesterday. Now in Dallas, tests indicated the presence of low radiation levels in travelers' luggage, and in the aircraft's cabin filtration system.

No passengers were quarantined and the cabin was ultimately cleared.

Of course, I'm sure no one heard that last sentence because they're all thinking OMG the radiation is already HERE and we're all dead men walking now. But he doesn't stop there. After describing the Chicago flight and suggesting that passengers were triggering radiation detectors, he gives us this:

Now this as the Golden State braces for a potentially dangerous radioactive plume coming from Japan. Now the United Nations projects that the plume will drift across the Pacific, hitting the Aleutian Islands first and then Southern California. That'll be late tomorrow.

Ok, assuming there is anyone out there who actually wants facts and who actually watched this nonsense from Hannity, here we go.

First, as to the DHS reports, here's the Chicago Tribune story, as posted at 12:55pm today, well ahead of Hannity's breathless report:

The Department of Homeland Security is screening passengers and cargo entering the United States from Japan for "even a blip of radiation," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Thursday.

Customs and Border Protection said there have been reports of radiation being detected from some cargo arriving from Japan at several airports. Those airports include Chicago, Dallas and Seattle. Radiation has not been detected in passengers or luggage. And none of the reported incidents involved dangerous or harmful amounts of radiation.

The agency handles more than half a million radiation alarms a year, though many are related to medical procedures.

Hardly the same as his report, which says they "detected radiation".

Now let's talk about that "radioactive plume" heading right for my front yard. And let's talk about Hannity's report that makes it sound like it's an absolutely-for-sure-it's-gonna-happen-any-minute kind of thing. From the New York Times, who originated the report yesterday:

A United Nations forecast of the possible movement of the radioactive plume coming from crippled Japanese reactors shows it churning across the Pacific, and touching the Aleutian Islands on Thursday before hitting Southern California late Friday.

What odds do you give a weather report? A United Nations forecast of possible movement is not the same thing as it's definitely going to happen, brace yourselves, go indoors, lock the doors and windows and put wet towels over your face moment. It's just not.

My problem with reporting like this is that it's "War of the Worlds" hysterical reporting. If a radioactive plume is heading to California, there's not a darn thing I can do about it. It's not like the Japanese intentionally unleashed this after they caused a 9.0 earthquake and a 30-foot tsunami, for heavens' sake. There's also no way to "brace" for such a thing.

So how about some real facts around what MIGHT come our way and what to do? Here's an excellent, science-based FAQ from UC Berkeley that might help allay fears:

Q: There are reports of a plume of radiation headed for the United States that is expected to hit California on Friday. What is the danger to people on the West Coast?

The short answer is, essentially none. There is no such thing as zero risk, but the risk from the radiation from Japan is orders of magnitude from being dangerous, by any definition.

To put it into perspective, I live in the hills above the stadium, which is at a higher elevation than the campus and gets more radiation from cosmic rays. The difference between the radiation I receive in my office down on campus and what I receive at my house is many times more than you’d get from this plume.

Most of the human-caused radiation we receive these days actually comes from medical procedures, but there are also radiation risks from living at higher elevations, or taking a plane flight.

We will be able measure whatever radiation gets here, no question. The nuclear engineering department has monitors on its roof to measure the radiation. But just because you can measure it doesn’t mean it’s dangerous.

Even after the Chernobyl accident, which released a million times more radiation than has been released in Japan and produced a plume that went all over the planet, there was absolutely no risk to people in the United States.

The pictures on the Web showing a very dangerous-looking plume coming across the Pacific Ocean is a wonderful testament to our ability to measure things, but the radiation we measure is not a risk of any consequence.

The only thing I'm bracing for tomorrow is the rain coming in over the weekend which will screw up my plans to go mountain bike riding. But for Hannity, maybe the world could end. Just for him?

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