Japan Finds Radioactive Food Up To 90 Miles From Fukushima Nuclear Site

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(New York Times) TOKYO — As Japan edged forward in its battle to contain the damage at its ravaged nuclear power plants on Saturday, the government said it had found higher than normal levels of radioactivity in spinach and milk at farms up to 90 miles away from the plants, the first confirmation that the unfolding nuclear crisis has affected the nation’s food supply.

While officials played down the immediate risks to consumers, the findings further unsettled a nation worried about the long-term effects of the hobbled reactors.

The Tokyo Electric Power Company, with help from the Japan Self-Defense Force, police officers and firefighters, continued efforts to cool the damaged reactors on Saturday to try to stave off a full-scale fuel meltdown and contain the fallout. The latest plan involved running a mile-long electrical transmission line to Reactor No. 2 at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station to try to restore power to its cooling system.

About 500 workers from the utility connected the power line on Saturday. They were checking the cooling system, which has been disabled since the earthquake and tsunami hit more than a week ago, and hope to restart it on Sunday.

Restoring power at the plant could provide a glimmer of hope after days of increasingly dire news that now includes contaminated food.

Yukio Edano, the chief cabinet secretary, said that spinach and milk were the only products found to have abnormally high radiation levels. The level of radioactivity found in the spinach would, if consumed for a year, equal the radiation received in a single CAT scan, he said, while that detected in milk would amount to just a fraction of a CAT scan.

“These levels do not pose an immediate threat to your health,” Mr. Edano said, adding that the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry would provide additional details. “Please stay calm.”

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Still, Fukushima Prefecture asked all dairy farms within 18 miles of the nuclear plant on Saturday to halt all milk shipments. Officials also halted shipments of spinach from the entire prefecture.

The milk with the elevated radiation levels was found in Fukushima Prefecture on farms about 19 miles from the nuclear plants. The contaminated spinach was found one prefecture to the south, in Ibaraki Prefecture, on farms 60 to 90 miles south of the plants.

Food safety inspectors said the iodine-131 in the tested milk was up to five times the level the government deems safe, and the spinach had levels more than seven times the safe level. The spinach also contained slightly higher than allowable amounts of cesium-137.

Minuscule amounts of radioactive iodine were also detected in the water supply in Tokyo and its five surrounding prefectures. In Tokyo, about 170 miles from the Fukushima Daiichi plant, the level was less than 1 percent of that considered dangerous by the government. In Fukushima city, about 50 miles from the power plant, the levels were still below half of the legal limit.

Iodine-131 and cesium-137 are two of the more dangerous elements that are feared to have been released from the plants in Fukushima. Iodine-131 can be dangerous to human health, especially if absorbed through milk and milk products, because it can accumulate in the thyroid and cause cancer. Cesium-137 can damage cells and lead to an increased risk of cancer.

The iodine levels are well beyond what the Food and Drug Administration in the United States considers a cause for concern. But experts say Japan’s reassurances about food safety were probably accurate.

Dr. Harold M. Swartz, a professor of medicine at Dartmouth who studies radiation exposure in people, said that the contamination levels were low and that the government’s advice was “probably reasonable.” But, he added, because people are so afraid of radiation, they are likely to avoid these foods altogether.

“Seems unnecessary to eat these” foods, said another expert, Dr. David J. Brenner, director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University. “I wouldn’t.”

That judgment was shared by Katsuko Sato, 76, who was shopping at a supermarket in central Tokyo on Saturday evening. She said she would stop buying spinach and, after watching Mr. Edano’s news conference, she called her family and friends to urge them not to, either.

“I’m not going to believe the government because I don’t think only spinach from Ibaraki will be affected,” she said.

A handful of vegetable-shop owners in Tokyo said they were concerned about the report, but continued to sell vegetables from Fukushima and Ibaraki because they had not been told to stop.

Dr. Swartz said people consuming milk and produce, particularly children and pregnant women, should be taking potassium iodide, which saturates the thyroid gland with nonradioactive iodine, and prevents it from taking in the radioactive form. Children and fetuses have the highest risk of thyroid cancer from exposure to radioactive iodine.

The Japanese authorities recommended Wednesday that people fleeing the 12-mile-radius evacuation zone start taking iodine pills.

Dr. Swartz said the radiation levels detected so far were still far lower than those at Chernobyl, the nuclear plant that exploded in Ukraine in 1986 and is still the world’s worst nuclear accident. He said that in the United States food with similar levels of radiation would probably be taken off the market, but more for political and public relations reasons than for scientific or medical ones.

The Japanese government is considering conducting more comprehensive tests of agricultural products from areas farther from the damaged reactors to address public anxiety about the food supply, Mr. Edano said.

Health inspectors are still trying to determine whether any spinach had been shipped from the six farms in Ibaraki Prefecture, where the contaminated produce was found, said Taku Ohara, an official in the food safety division of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. The tests were conducted Saturday. No contaminated milk had been shipped from the farm where higher than normal radioactive levels were detected.

Mr. Ohara said Japan was particularly strict in determining what constituted safe radioactive levels. It is also fastidious in inspecting food imported from China and other countries. Leafy spinach is especially susceptible to absorbing radioactive material, he said.

Asparagus, cucumbers, radishes, tomatoes and other vegetables are also grown in Fukushima, but have not been found to be contaminated. But only a small number of farms have been tested because officials have been overwhelmed in the wake of the earthquake, tsunami and the nuclear crisis that followed, Mr. Ohara said.

Though land-poor Japan imports much of its fruit, grain and soybeans, 79 percent of the vegetables eaten here are grown domestically. Japan is the largest net importer of food in the world.

There have been no reports of contaminated fish or meat.

Many of the ports, fleets and processing facilities in Tohoku, the area most affected by the tsunami and nuclear crisis, were so badly damaged that no fish or seafood from there has reached Tsukiji market in central Tokyo, according to the market’s general manager, Tsutomo Kosaka. The market handles 90 percent of the seafood for about 40 million consumers in the greater Tokyo area.

Japan’s leading producers of premium beef, including the world-famous Kobe brand, said Saturday that they had not yet tested their cattle or feed. But they were nervous about the possible spread of radiation from Fukushima.

“Even though the government hasn’t mentioned the possibility of contamination of beef, we should start testing to convince people the beef is safe,” said Hiroshi Uchida, a former professor of agriculture who is director of the national cattle museum in Iwate Prefecture, about 150 miles north of the damaged reactors in Fukushima. “We need scientific proof and hard data to protect the beef brand.”

While only spinach and milk were found to have elevated radiation levels, some countries have been testing food imports from Japan since the day after the quake and tsunami. In Hong Kong, for instance, 216 Japanese products passed food quality screenings, including meat, fish, fruits and vegetables.

In Japan, consumers were also grappling with rolling blackouts ordered after damage to the reactors reduced the electricity supply in the greater Tokyo region.

At the Fukushima plant, temperatures outside the four damaged reactors were lower than expected, Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa said Saturday, raising hopes that the nuclear fuel could be kept cool by spraying the reactors with water, while technicians worked on restoring power to the cooling systems.

But Mr. Kitazawa was unable to confirm how hot it was inside the buildings, leaving open the possibility that nuclear fuel may still be overheating.

“Currently, we have a level of stabilization, but the situation remains volatile,” said Mr. Edano, the cabinet secretary.

The National Police Agency said Saturday that there were nearly 7,200 confirmed deaths so far because of the earthquake and tsunami on March 11, and nearly 11,000 people remained missing. The authorities have said they expect the death toll to exceed 10,000.

Mark McDonald and Ayasa Aizawa contributed reporting from Tokyo, and Denise Grady from New York.

March 19, 2011

Source: The New York Times

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