NEW YORK -- Japan's tsunami last year sent an estimated five tons of
debris into the Pacific Ocean. Experts say roughly a ton-and-a-half of
debris is still afloat, heading toward Western U.S. shores. Some has
already washed up in Alaska.
The earthquake-spurred tsunami resulted in an emergency at the
Fukushima nuclear power plant, which sent untold amounts of
radioactivity into the air.
But a leading scientist says the U.S. needn't be too concerned about
radioactivity, as far as the floating debris is concerned.
Toxicity is the major worry, says M. Sanjayan, the lead scientist at
the Nature Conservancy and now a CBS News science and environmental
He told "CBS This Morning" co-hosts Charlie Rose and Erica Hill that
comparisons being made by some observers between the Exxon Valdez
disaster and the approaching debris field are off-base.
"The people who are saying that," Sanjayan observed, "are really
talking about the geographic extent of it and the tonnage of it. Of
course, oil floats, so it's not that hard to imagine that this 1.5
million tons of debris is really heavier than (oil).
"So, is it a serious issue? It's a serious issue. But Exxon (Valdez)
was concentrated in a small area, and so the impacts of Exxon in that
small area were very much greater."
Asked if it's correct to say the danger comes from toxicity, not from
radioactivity, Sanjayan responded, "That's right. The fishing boat that
was just sunk - scientists got on that boat, they looked at
radioactivity, and it was essentially background level. It was normal.
So, I'm not particularly worried about radioactivity."
But toxicity - from gas, oil or chemicals and other elements washing
ashore - is a real issue.
"Think about everything in your garage and imagine that dumping in the
ocean," Sanjayan said. "Some of it is going to make it out here intact,
so a barrel might contain something. If it's punctured, it would have
been diluted by now. That's what I think people are worried about -- it
showing up on a beach."
Sanjayan pointed out that, "It's great that people are concerned about
this one particular issue, but, to put it in perspective, there's
probably over 100 million tons of garbage, basically, floating in the
Pacific Ocean alone. So, this represents one, one-and-a-half percent of
what's out there."
The best start to cleaning it all up is to get Man to stop dumping in
the ocean to begin with, Sanjayan stressed.