The world’s nuclear powers have detonated more than 500 nukes in the atmosphere. These explosions were tests, shows of force to rival nations, and proof that countries such as Russia, France, and the U.S. had mastered the science of the bomb. The world’s honey has suffered for it. According to a new study published in Nature Communications, honey in the United States is full of fallout lingering from those atmospheric nuclear tests.
For the study, researchers collected honey samples from more than 100 hives and soil samples from 110 locations across the Eastern United States. The scientists found elevated levels of cesium in both the soil and honey samples. “While most of the radiation produced by a nuclear weapon detonation decays within the first few days, one of the longest-lived and more abundant fission products is [cesium] , which has a radioactive half-life of 30.2 years,” the study said.
Previous research after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster identified elevated levels of cesium in European honey and pollen. The good news is that, according to researchers, most of this honey is probably safe for humans to consume. “
While the concentrations of [cesium] we report in honey today are below the...dietary threshold level of concern observed by many countries, and not evidently dangerous for human consumption, the widespread residual radiation...is surprising given that nearly 2 half-lives have elapsed since most of the bomb production of [cesium],” they said.
The U.S. conducted the majority of its atmospheric nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands and American south-west. The fallout spread through the atmosphere and settled across the planet. “Eastern North America received disproportionally high fallout from the 1950s to 1960s nuclear weapons tests despite being relatively far from the detonation sites because of prevailing westerlies and high precipitation,” the study said.
Most of it dissipated quickly, but the cesium stuck around and soaked into the soil where its chemical structure, which is similar to potassium, made it attractive to plants. Potassium and cesium are chemically similar and the study speculated that this is the reason the plants absorbed so much of the cesium, which led to it being in the pollen bees turned into honey.
It also found an inverse relationship between the amount of potassium naturally occurring in soil and the amount of fallout found in honey. Southern states contained three times the amount of fallout that the northern states did. Southern soil doesn’t contain much potassium while soil in the north is rich with the stuff.
While this honey is probably safe for human consumption, it may not be for the bees who generate it.
“In the last five years, it has become clear that insects suffer significant negative consequences at radiation dose rates that were previously considered safe, but the threshold at which damage occurs is debated,” the study said. “Some studies indicate that low levels of [cesium] pollution can be lethal to pollinating insects and that any increase above background causes measurable damage to surrounding ecosystems.”
Much of the world stopped detonating nuclear bombs in the atmosphere in 1963 when the world’s nuclear powers signed the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Almost 60 years later, we’re still living with the consequences of those nuclear explosions.