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Unsafe levels of radiation suspected in milk, spinach near Japan nuclear plant

Health officials' tests, if confirmed, could mark the first finding that fallout from the post-quake nuclear crisis has reached the food supply. There are also reports of radioactive iodine in tap water.

March 19, 2011|By Kenji Hall and David Pierson | Los Angeles Times
  • Japanese firefighters prepare to depart in water-cannon trucks to cool off the Fukushima nuclear plant.
Japanese firefighters prepare to depart in water-cannon trucks to cool… (STR, EPA )

Reporting from Tokyo and Beijing — Radiation found in batches of milk and spinach near the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant was suspected to exceed safety levels, Japan's top government spokesman said Saturday.

If confirmed, the discovery would mark the first time the fallout from the nuclear crisis may have affected Japan's food supply.

The Kyodo News Agency also reported late Saturday that traces of radioactive iodine were found in tap water in Tokyo and other parts of the country.

Photos: Japan grapples with crisis

Health officials administered tests on milk from Fukushima prefecture and spinach from neighboring Ibaraki prefecture. The government said it may issue a ban on the sale of the products after wider analysis.

"We are doing everything we can to avoid health problems," said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano.

The health ministry said the levels were not harmful to humans. The amount of radiation found in the milk, if consumed for a year, was equivalent to levels found in one CAT scan. The spinach was equal to one-fifth the radioactivity in a CAT scan.

The dairy farm in question is in Kawamata, more than 19 miles from the Fukushima plant, and beyond the 12-mile evacuation perimeter set up by authorities, Edano said. Fukushima officials recommended that the dairy farm and farms in the evacuation zone halt deliveries to stores and distribution centers.

Many Asian countries rely on Japan's food industry, especially for quality seafood. In Hong Kong, shoppers have reportedly been scrambling to buy Japanese infant formula and abalone, a delicacy, for fear any new supplies would be contaminated.

Concern over radiation in sea salt supplies helped trigger panic buying of salt in China this week.

Health officials have dismissed such fears, saying the amount of radiation detected away from the Fukushima plant is still minor. Still, traces of radiation in the food supply could prove harmful.

Japan's health ministry said that the milk tested had iodine-131 at levels five times higher than was presumed safe, while the iodine in the spinach was more than seven times higher. The spinach also had elevated levels of cesium-137.

Cesium-137 and iodine-131 are two radioactive isotopes released when nuclear fuel breaks down. Iodine-131 disappears within a few months, but it can be dangerous to humans because it can accumulate in the thyroid and increase the risk of cancer. Cesium-137 can contaminate soil and lakes and take hundreds of years to decay entirely. Children were found to develop thyroid cancer after drinking milk contaminated with radioactive isotopes following the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Firefighters were again working frantically at the Fukushima nuclear complex Saturday trying to avert any chance of a similar catastrophe. Engineers were hoping to connect power lines to the reactors to operate the down cooling systems again.

Firetrucks also continued to dump tons of water on the plant's No. 3 reactor in hopes of preventing a meltdown.

Japanese Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa said that officials believe some water shot from the fire trucks on Friday had made it into the No. 3 reactor's pool containing spent fuel rods. That belief was based on infrared thermometer readings, collected by a military helicopter flying near the complex Saturday.

The readings suggested that the pools -- at lower than 212 degrees -- were not becoming too dangerously hot, said Kitazawa.

"There is no other way for us to know whether there is water in the pools [containing spent fuel rods] except by evaluating the temperature," he said.

The work resumed on a day Japan again was rattled by powerful aftershocks, including a magnitude 6.1 earthquake shortly before 7 p.m. near Ibaraki prefecture.

Photos: Japan grapples with crisis

david.pierson@latimes.com

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