Radiation Fears Spark Widening Global Ban on Japanese Food Imports

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As a result of the deadly earthquake and tsunami that has caused a severe radiation leak from the Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, the Food and Drug Administration has pledged to halt imports of dairy products and produce from the area in and around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex.

But one wonders just exactly how the FDA plans on identifying food from Japan’s various prefectures near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex. Even Democratic Representative Rosa DeLauro has expressed concern, commenting that the FDA has been unsuccessful in the past at tracking the origin of food production facilities in other countries.

Thus far, Australia, Hong Kong, Canada, Russia, and the US (UPDATE: China and South Korea) have restricted food imports from Japan over fears of radioactive contamination. Now France wants the EU to impose restrictions as well.

The BBC reported on Thursday that Singapore has found low levels of radioactivity in four vegetable samples imported from Japan: Parsley, rapeseed, mustard and perilla. And Officials in Iceland reported trace amounts of radioactive iodine in the air.

The BBC also notes that contaminated vegetables discovered in Singapore had come from the regions of Tochigi and Ibaraki – inside the affected area – but also from two other areas, Chiba and Ehime. Singapore has since suspended imports of milk products and other foodstuffs from the same four prefectures.

Agence France-Presse reports the Philippines banned Japanese chocolate imports, and Indonesia asked that Japan certify its exported processed foods as radiation-free.

Also on Thursday, the Wall Street Journal claimed a new estimate of radioactive material suggests airborne levels may be higher than what’s allowed for infants well outside the Fukushima plant’s 12-mile evacuation zone.

Radioactive Food Ban in Japan

In Japan, government officials have instructed people living in Fukushima not to eat 11 types of green leafy vegetables, and farmers have been asked not to send their goods to the market.

And Bloomberg reports the detection of cobalt, iodine and cesium in the sea near the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant north of Tokyo has hurt fish sales in the world’s second-biggest seafood market.

All shipments of milk and parsley have also been halted in some prefectures. These restrictions were based on detected radioactive materials surpassing legal limits set under Japan’s food sanitation law.

In addition to spinach, broccoli and cabbage, the 11 vegetables also include turnips, ”komatsuna,” ”shinobufuyuna,” ”santona,” ”chijirena,” ”kosaitai,” ”kukitachina” and ”aburana” rapeseed.

“Unfortunately, as the situation is expected to last for the long term, we are asking that shipments stop at an early stage,” said Japanese Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano. “It is desirable to avoid intake of the foods as much as possible.”

Japan intensified inspections of vegetables in six prefectures located near Fukushima — Miyagi, Yamagata, Saitama, Chiba, Niigata and Nagano. The scope of their inspections included lettuce, green onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, Chinese chives, asparagus, field peas and green soybeans.

Now Japan’s health ministry says radioactive cesium above the legal limit has been detected in the vegetable known as Komatsuna, or Japanese mustard spinach, grown in Tokyo.

The radioactive cesium was detected from a field in Edogawa ward. The radioactive level was 890 becquerels per kilogram, exceeding the legal limit of 500. This is the first time that radioactive cesium exceeding the legal limit has been found in a Tokyo vegetable.

Kyodo News in Japan reported that Japan’s top government spokesman, Yukio Edano, said radiation levels in both the vegetables and water in Tokyo pose no immediate risk to human health. Japanese officials continue to stress that levels of radiation so far pose no immediate risk to the health of children and adults.

But the group Physicians for Social Responsibility, disputs Japan’s food safety assurances and called for a more strict ban on sales of exposed food. “There is no safe level of radionuclide exposure, whether from food, water or other sources. Period,” said physician Jeff Patterson, a former president of the group.

To make matters worse, now they’re running low on food in Tokyo, where shelves have been stripped bare of basic necessities in stores across the city. “The shortages were mainly limited to basic staples, such as rice, instant noodles and milk. Vegetables, meat and tofu, meanwhile, were readily available in most places.”

Radioactive Water

On Thursday, Japanese officials — whose credibility on reporting the facts diminishes with each day — claimed radioactive material in Tokyo’s tap water has fallen to below the level at which they could be harmful to infants, according to the Wall Street Journal. This is after elevated levels were found in samples from Tuesday and Wednesday.

“Tokyo metropolitan government said it detected 210 becquerels of radioactive iodine on Tuesday at a water purification plant and advised that infants in its 23 wards and five cities — Musashino, Mitaka, Machida, Tama and Inagi — not be given tap water.”

Kyodo News reports water with radiation levels considered to be unsafe for infants to drink has been found at several purification plants outside of Tokyo.

But NHK World, a Japanese news service, reported radioactive water has been detected at water purification facilities in Tokyo and 5 other prefectures. The level of radioactive iodine-131 at 18 purification plants exceeds Japan’s safety limit for infants.

“The governments of Tokyo, Fukushima, Ibaraki, Chiba, Saitama and Tochigi prefectures have detected more than 100 becquerels of iodine per liter of water, above the safety level for infants under 12 months. But the water is safe for adults because it’s not above the 300 becquerel safety limit for them.”

The city of Hitachi in Ibaraki Prefecture detected traces of radioactive iodine more than twice the stipulated safe limit for infants — 100 becquerels per 1 kilogram — in water taken from a purification plant on Wednesday.

NHK World reported today that further tests on Thursday indicated a maximum of 229.6 becquerels per liter of radioactive iodine-131 was found in Hitachi, 150 becquerels in Hitachi Ota and 123 becquerels in Tokai.

And in Chiba prefectural, officials warned against allowing infants to drink tap water since iodine rose to 220 becquerels per 1 kg of water at one of its filtration plants and 180 becquerels at another facility. The samples were taken Wednesday from the two plants located in Matsudo.

In the Tochigi prefectural, officials also warned against allowing infants to drink tap water; 108 becquerels of radioactive iodine was detected within tap water collected Thursday in Utsunomiya, along with a small amount of radioactive cesium.

Now Tokyo officials are saying they will no longer warn against consumption of tap water in the metropolitan area. ”I believe readings will go up and down. But even if levels exceed standards temporarily, it will be no problem as long as they stay (most of the time) within the range throughout the year,” said Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara at a news conference.

Attempts by Japanese officials to minimize the impact of radiation exposure have done very little in reassuring the Japanese population at large. One expert claims comparisons with X-rays and CT scans are “meaningless” and that inhaling particles increases radiation exposure by “a factor of a trillion”.

The government has passed out over 200,000 bottles of water, which is sold out everywhere, leaving supermarket shelves bare. Store owners are even imposing purchase restrictions on the amount of bottled water consumers can buy, with some store owners asking for birth record proof to verify the age of their infant children.

An Ito-Yokado supermarket in Matsudo gave consumers with documents showing they have children under 1 year old priority to purchase water, where parents stood in a long lines.

”I rushed to the store after hearing about the priority sales,” Shinichi Udagawa, a 38-year-old company employee, said after he could not buy water. ”I don’t have information where I can obtain it.”

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said the government has asked bottlers to bump up production, even though they were already in full production mode since the earthquake and tsunami occurred in the Tohoku region.

And as the Japanese government requests bottle companies to crank up production, Reuters reports Tokyo is running out of bottled water. “Many shops in Japan’s capital ran out of bottled water on Thursday after a warning of radiation danger for babies from a damaged nuclear plant where engineers are battling the world’s worst atomic crisis since Chernobyl.”

Health Impact of Radioactive Substances

There’s been a lot of discussion by US and Japanese officials regarding the impact of various radioactive substances on health. Radioactive measurements like becquerels, millisieverts, microsieverts, and counts per minute (cpm), are being bandied about to a public largely unfamiliar with the meaning of these terms.

The knowledgeable people at Reuters have assembled information on three radioactive substances health experts are most concerned about, their detected levels in Japan, and what they mean for human health:


Leafy green vegetables in Japan were found this week to contain up to 22,000 becquerels of iodine-131 for every kilogram.

Such a level exceeds the limit set by the European Union by 11 times. Becquerel is a measure of radioactivity.

Eating a kilogram of such vegetables would give half the amount of radiation typically received by the average person from the natural environment in a year.

Eating this amount every day for 45 days will accumulate 50 millisieverts, the annual radiation limit set for a nuclear plant worker. Millisievert quantifies the amount of radiation absorbed by human tissues.

Exposure to 100 millisieverts a year increases the risk of cancer. That is equivalent to about three whole body CT scans.

If inhaled or swallowed, iodine-131 concentrates in the thyroid gland and increases the risk of thyroid cancer. Children, fetuses and young adults are especially vulnerable.

The risk of thyroid cancer can be lowered by taking potassium iodide pills, which helps prevent the uptake of the radioactive iodine.

However, iodine-131 disintegrates relatively quickly and its radioactivity is halved every 8 days. This means it loses all its harmfulness in 80 days.

Caesium-134 and Caesium-137

Vegetables in Japan have also been found tainted with up to 14,000 becquerels of cesium for every kilogram.

That exceeds the EU limit by over 11 times.

Eating a kilogram of such tainted vegetables every day for a month would accumulate radiation equivalent to a full body CT scan – or 20 millisieverts.

External exposure to large amounts of radioactive cesium can cause burns, acute radiation sickness and death. It can also increase the risk of cancer. Ingesting or inhaling cesium allows it to be distributed in soft tissues, especially muscle tissue, increasing cancer risk. It can also cause spasms, involuntary muscular contractions and infertility.

Unlike iodine, uptake of radioactive cesium cannot be prevented once the person is exposed.

This substance is of more concern than iodine-131 because it is very hardy and takes far longer to disintegrate.

Caesium-137 has a half life of 30 years, meaning it takes that long to reduce its radioactivity by half. It will take at least 240 years for this contaminant to exhaust all its radioactivity.

Caesium-134 has a half life of 2 years, which means it will take about 20 years for it to become harmless.

Below are the effects of short-term, high-level exposure to radiation, as published by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Unlike cancer, these effects from acute radiation exposure usually appear quickly, causing what is known as radiation sickness, which includes symptoms like nausea, hair loss and skin burns. If the dose is fatal, death usually occurs within two months.

* Exposure to 50-100 millisieverts: changes in blood chemistry.

* 500: nausea, within hours.

* 700: vomiting

* 750: hair loss, within 2-3 weeks

* 900: diarrhea

* 1,000: hemorrhage

* 4,000: possible death within 2 months, if no treatment

* 10,000: destruction of intestinal lining, internal bleeding and death within 1-2 weeks

*20,000: damage to the central nervous system and loss of consciousness within minutes, and death within hours or days.

Sources: Taiwan Atomic Energy Council, World Nuclear Association, US Environmental Protection Agency, Japan’s Ministry of Health, Hong Kong’s Center for Food Safety. (Compiled by Tan Ee Lyn, Editing by Daniel Magnowski)

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Spence Cooper
Inquisitive foodie with a professional investigative background and strong belief in the organic farm to table movement. Author of Bad Seeds: A FriendsEAT Guide to GMO's. Buy Now!
Spence Cooper


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