Small amounts of radiation were detected in Tokyo’s water supply and above-limits radiation was found in milk and spinach from areas near Japan’s damaged nuclear plant, the government said in its first acknowledgement the disaster may have contaminated the food supply.
“This is not at the level that would have any direct effect on your health,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said at a news briefing in Tokyo yesterday. Eating the spinach for one year would be equivalent to 20 percent of the radiation exposure associated with a CT scan, he said.
Engineers have been attempting to contain overheating of the nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant, damaged by Japan’s strongest earthquake, and prevent a meltdown and the further spread of radiation. South Korea, Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore have started screening food imports from Japan.
Samples of tap water taken March 18 in Tokyo and five nearby prefectures showed traces of radiation that were within acceptable levels, the Japanese government said. The prefectures include Tochigi, Gunma, Saitama, Chiba and Niigata, Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology said yesterday in a faxed statement.
The milk is from Fukushima prefecture and the spinach from neighboring Ibaraki prefecture, Edano said.
The government didn’t say how the milk and spinach became contaminated, making it difficult to assess the risks, Lam Ching-wan, a chemical pathologist at the University of Hong Kong School of Medicine, said by telephone.
“They should seriously think about restricting any agricultural products in that area,” he said. “It seems that the whole ecosystem could be affected, so they shouldn’t take any chances.”
One millisievert, a measure of radioactivity levels, in a liter of milk consumed by a six-year-old child would increase the risk of cancer by 0.017 percent, Lam said. A full-body CT scan would produce exposure of 12 millisieverts, according to the World Health Organization.
Japan will check the source of contaminated milk and spinach and will recall the products that show higher than standard radiation levels, Kyodo News said, citing Kohei Ohtsuka, vice minister of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.
People living within 30 kilometers (19 miles) of the Fukushima plant should wear masks and long sleeves and stay out of the rain, Japan’s nuclear safety agency said yesterday.
Officials in Japan’s 47 prefectures have been asked to test agricultural products, seafood and drinking water for possible contamination to prevent tainted grains, milk, vegetables, meat and eggs from being consumed, Kumiko Tanaka, an official at the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, said March 18.
Ibaraki also produces cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, strawberries and pears. Fukushima produces cucumbers, tomatoes and string beans.
Japan exported 481 billion yen ($6 billion) worth of food last year, accounting for 0.7 percent of total exports, according to data on the website of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. In 2009, more than 70 percent of Japan’s food exports went to Hong Kong, the U.S., China, Taiwan and South Korea, according to the Japan External Trade Organization.
“No doubt people will be afraid of anything coming from Japan,” David Cohen, head of Asian forecasting for Action Economics in Singapore, said by phone. “It’s still more of a question of fear rather than any elevated radiation levels so far.”
South Korea plans to strengthen radioactivity tests on livestock and seafood from Japan, the Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries said March 15 in an e-mailed statement. South Korea imported 527 metric tons of livestock products, mostly dairy, and 84,018 tons of seafood from Japan last year, it said.
“We will use the same measures that we used during Chernobyl in 1986,” Pipat Yingseree, secretary-general of Thailand’s Food and Drug Administration, said March 15 in Bangkok. “If it becomes clear that there is radioactive contamination, we will ask for cooperation from operators to delay food imports from Japan, and we will implement serious checks by seizing all products and inspecting all of them.”
Sushi restaurants and hotels, including Shangri-La Asia Ltd.’s luxury chain and London’s Zuma and Roka Japanese restaurants have stopped buying fresh produce from Japan over fears of possible contamination. The Hong Kong government has been testing radiation levels on all food imported from Japan since March 12.
California officials will screen milk produced in the state for signs of radiation contamination transmitted by grass-eating cows, said Howard Backer, interim director of the California Department of Public Health.
California authorities are reassuring residents that any radiation drifting across the Pacific Ocean from Japan’s earthquake-damaged nuclear reactors would not pose any health threat. Officials are monitoring radiation levels and had not detected any rise as of March 17, Backer said.