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Latest threat: radiation-contaminated food

by Mizuho Aoki

The announcement Saturday that radiation has popped up in milk and spinach made in areas near the Fukushima No. 1 power plant has cast a shadow over food safety.

Based on new government standards introduced in the wake of the nuclear crisis, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said that the levels of radiation in both products pose no “immediate” health risks if consumed and asked the public to stay calm.

How much radiation was detected and why can the government say it’s safe for now?

Here are some questions and answers about the risks of eating radiation-tainted food.

How much radiation was detected and what does it mean?

The milk, collected Thursday in the town of Kawamata, Fukushima Prefecture, contained 1,510 becquerels of iodine per kilogram, about five times the new standard.

If one were to drink the contaminated milk for an entire year, the accumulated radiation would equal that of one CT scan, based on the average amount of milk consumed by a Japanese, Edano said.

The spinach, from Ibaraki Prefecture, contained 15,020 becquerels of iodine, about seven times the standard, but only 524 becquerels of cesium, or just slightly higher than the standard of 500 becquerels per kilogram.

According to the government, eating the contaminated spinach every day would be the same as absorbing one-fifth of the radiation from a CT scan.

Michikuni Shimo, visiting professor at Fujita Health University, said people should not worry about the radiation detected in the foods. Although it is better to wash vegetables before eating them, there is no immediate need to stop consuming these foods, Shimo said.

“The most troubling thing to me is the fear that’s out of proportion to the risk,” Dr. Henry Duval Royal, a radiologist at Washington University Medical School, told the Associated Press.

How has the government responded?

The central government is urging local governments to monitor radiation levels in perishable foods, such as vegetables and milk, and in drinking water, meat and eggs.

Contaminated products will be excluded from the market.

Are foods tainted above official levels too dangerous to eat?

Not necessarily. The standards, introduced after the nuclear crisis broke out at the Fukushima plant, are strictly set with a wide margin from the level that may actually pose a health threat.

The new standards were based on recommendations from the International Commission on Radiological Protection and on findings from studies on the long-term effects that radiation had on the hibakusha in Hiroshima and Nagasaki prefectures.

“Exceeding these levels does not immediately threaten human health. But you’d better keep watching,” Shimo of Fujita Health University said.

Information from Kyodo added