Japan finds contaminated food up to 90 miles from nuclear sites

March 17, 2011 - 0:0

TOKYO (New York Times) — The government said Saturday that it had found higher than normal levels of radioactive materials in spinach and milk at farms up to 90 miles away from the ravaged nuclear power plants, the first confirmation by officials 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 damaged nuclear power plants.
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 further fuel meltdown and stem the radiation leak. 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 try 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 with abnormally high levels of radioactive materials. The newly discovered radioactivity contained in the average amount of spinach and milk consumed in an entire year would be equal to the amount received in a single CAT scan, he said.
“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.”
The Fukushima Prefecture asked dairy farms within 18 miles of the nuclear plant on Saturday to halt all milk shipments. The milk that contained higher levels of radioactive material was tested at farms about 19 miles from the hobbled nuclear plants in Fukushima Prefecture. The spinach was found in Ibaraki Prefecture, at farms 60 to 90 miles south of the plants.
Food safety inspectors said the amount of iodine-131 found in the tested milk was five times higher than levels deemed safe. They said the iodine found in the spinach was more than seven times higher. The spinach also contained slightly higher amounts of cesium-137.
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.
Those 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.
That was the case in Tokyo on Saturday, where a handful of vegetable shop owners said they were concerned about the report, but continued to sell vegetables from Fukushima and Ibaraki because they had not been told to stop.
Katsuko Sato, 76, who was shopping for food on Saturday evening, 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.
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 in the affected area start taking iodine.
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 he thought that in the United States food with similar levels of radiation would 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 country’s 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. 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, Mr. Ohara 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 the fruit, grain and soybeans it consumes, 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 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 radioactive materials above established limits, 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, the damage to the reactors has reduced the electricity supply in the greater Tokyo region, leading to rolling blackouts that have slowed business activity.
The government is rushing to find a way to cool the damaged reactors in Fukushima to prevent a full-scale meltdown. In a news conference on Saturday, Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa said that temperatures outside the four hobbled nuclear reactors in Fukushima were lower than expected, but he was unable to confirm how hot it was inside the damaged buildings, leaving open the possibility that nuclear fuel may still be overheating.
Temperatures were below 212 degrees Fahrenheit based on readings taken by firefighters from the Self-Defense Force who drove trucks with water cannons to within about 60 feet of the No. 3 reactor on Friday.
Mr. Kitazawa said that the temperature readings had increased hopes that the nuclear fuel could be kept cool through further efforts to spray the reactors with water, while technicians worked on restoring power to the cooling systems.
“What we are ultimately working toward is getting to a point where water is continuously pouring into the reactors,” he said, adding that engineers were also working to find a way to assess water levels inside the reactors, which were currently unapproachable by workers because of high levels of radiation.
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.