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Radiation ‘Far Below’ Risk Levels Found in U.S. Milk Samples

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Radiation ‘Far Below’ Risk Levels Found in U.S. Milk Samples
Dairy cows feed at the Milky Way Dairy farm near Visalia, California. Photographer: Phil Hawkins/Bloomberg

March 31 (Bloomberg) -- Radiation “far below” levels that pose a risk to humans was found in milk from California and Washington, the first signs Japan’s nuclear accident is affecting U.S. food, state and federal officials said.

The U.S. is stepping up monitoring of radiation in milk, rain and drinking water, the Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration said yesterday in a statement.

While the agencies said the amounts detected are “far below levels of public health concern,” including for infants and children, advocacy groups such as Public Citizen disagreed.

“There continues to be a significant risk of increased radiation releases that could result in detrimental health and safety impacts to American populations,” Tyson Slocum, research director of the energy program at Public Citizen, said in an interview. “The emphasis appears to be on downplaying the risks.”

Radioactive iodine-131 was found in a March 25 milk sample from Spokane that is more than 5,000 times lower than risk levels set by the FDA, according to the agencies. Iodine-131 was found in a March 28 milk sample in California, the state Department of Public Health said. The reading also is below risk levels, Mike Sicilia, a spokesman, said yesterday.

The U.S. is tracking radiation from the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power station, which was crippled by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that knocked out power needed to keep nuclear fuel rods cool and undamaged.

‘Very, Very Low’

The amount of iodine-131 in the Washington milk was 0.8 picocurie per liter, according to the agencies. A picocurie is one-trillionth of a curie, a measurement of a radiological dose. Similar findings are likely in the coming days, the agencies said.

Ira Helfand, a director of Physicians for Social Responsibility, said the amount found in the milk is “very, very low” and wouldn’t require anyone drinking it to take potassium iodine pills, an antidote to prevent thyroid damage in the event of dangerous exposure.

While any exposure “raises the risk of getting cancer,” the levels reported in Spokane pose “very, very, very low health consequences” Helfand said in a telephone interview from Springfield, Massachusetts.

“I’m much more worried about the situation for people in Japan,” he said.

Milk from California, the biggest producing state, is safe based on government findings, Jennifer Giambroni, spokeswoman for the California Milk Advisory Board, said in an e-mail.

‘Highest Priority’

“Consumer safety is the highest priority for dairy farmers and dairy-foods companies,” Giambroni said. “The dairy industry will continue to work closely with federal and state government agencies to ensure that we maintain a safe milk supply.”

California produced about 40 billion pounds of milk in 2007, valued at $7.3 billion, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture website.

Consumers should have no concern about radiation in fruits and vegetables, said Patrick Delaney, spokesman for the Washington-based United Fresh Produce Association, which represents produce companies.

“At this point, there isn’t a danger of contamination,” Delaney said in an interview.

In Japan, government officials asked farmers to keep cows and cattle in barns as radioactive contamination of milk spread from Fukushima prefecture, north of Tokyo. Japan restricted raw-milk shipments from Fukushima and neighboring Ibaraki prefecture after tainted products were found in random testing.

Japan Contamination

As many as 99 products, including milk and vegetables such as spinach, were found contaminated in Tokyo and five regions to its north and east as of March 26, according to a statement on the Japanese health ministry’s website.

In the U.S., elevated levels of radioactive material in rainwater were reported in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, according to the EPA. Radiation levels have been “very low,” pose no health concern and were to be expected, according to the agency’s website.

The EPA said it’s reviewing the data from Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. The levels are above normal background amounts reported for the areas, according to the agency.

“Radiation is all around us in our daily lives, and these findings are a minuscule amount compared to what people experience every day,” Patricia Hansen, an FDA senior scientist, said in the statement.

Iodine Half Life

Iodine-131 has a half-life of eight days, and the level found in milk and dairy products is “expected to drop relatively quickly,” the agencies said. Radiation gets into milk when dairy cows eat contaminated grass.

Hansen said the radiation in Spokane is tiny compared with levels a person receives watching television or taking a round trip cross-country flight.

Any exposure to radiation carries some risk for U.S. residents, according to a report on the the Japanese crisis by Physicians for Social Responsibility, a Washington-based advocacy group focused on preventing nuclear war.

“There is no lower limit of exposure under which there is no damage and which can be considered safe,” according to the report. “Any amount of radiation will damage cells.”

Consumers are posting concerns on websites such as democraticunderground.com, which said it was founded to protest the Bush administration. An anonymous March 30 post urged people to buy dry milk because of radiation in Washington state.

An anonymous poster at godlikeproductions.com said he might buy Nido whole milk power, made by Nestle SA, a packaged food company headquartered in Vevey, Switzerland.

To contact the reporters on this story: Kim Chipman in Washington at kchipman@bloomberg.net; Stephanie Armour in Washington at sarmour@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Liebert at lliebert@bloomberg.net

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