** Update: click on the WHO link at the end of the article for current advice on the safety of food imported from Japan. In April 2011, a month after the Fukushima accident, increased levels of radiation were still leaking from the reactors. Some experts said the dangers were approaching those presented by Chernobyl in the 1980s. Seafood as well as crops will be affected by the radiation leaks and the safety of food which may find its way out of Japan onto the world market must remain questionable for some time.**
Fukushima: earthquake, tsunami, nuclear disaster – and radioactive foodstuffs
Soon after the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster which hit Japan in March 2011, people began to wonder if it was safe to eat Japanese food.
It’s a valid question. Nuclear power worries people and the Fukushima disaster with its release of radiation did nothing to reassure most. Nor did the fact that for days it seemed likely that nuclear meltdown was going to pose a huge problem to the whole of Japan and possibly beyond. The Tepco workers struggled valiantly to cool the stricken reactors (read a blog by one the Fukushima workers here.) But the Japanese government and Tepco management seemed to be at a total loss on how to contain the disaster.
For Japanese survivors in the country’s devastated north-east, the biggest immediate practical problems revolved around food and medicine. Even if you’ve lost your loved ones, your home and your business you must still eat and try to stay healthy. Relief efforts were scant, however, and people were cold, hungry and in need of medical help. Survivors were reported to be scavenging in some cases, quite understandably eating any food they could get hold of, regardless of the risk of contamination.
Contaminated food – a risk in Japan and internationally?
In and beyond Japan, others – thankfully more fortunate – began asking themselves if Japanese food contaminated by radiation now posed a risk to health? The World Health Organization (WHO) issued the following statement, below, shortly after the disaster. There are a couple of problems about food imports from Japan that are not addressed here by WHO however. One is the possibility that contaminated raw materials may be exported from Japan to another country, processed there and then sold as the product of that country and not as Japanese porduce. The other problem is that an awful lot of water has been used to try and cool the Fukushima reactors and much of that contaminated water will have run off into the Pacific Ocean. It will contaminate fish and other sea life that may end up on dinner tables in future. And there’s no way at present of gauging how serious or longlived that contamination is likely to be.
Here are the WHO guidelines drawn up after the Fukushima accident:
Is it safe to eat food imported from Japan?
Food that was dispatched before the emergency situation would not be affected. Food safety concerns are restricted to food from the affected zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Given the reported safety measures, the winter conditions, and the earthquake and resulting tsunami, it is unlikely that food production or harvesting intended for export is taking place in that area. Japanese authorities have instituted monitoring of food for radionuclide contamination.
How can food products become radioactive?
Foods can be contaminated with radioactive materials as the result of a nuclear or radiological emergency. The surface of foods like fruits and vegetables or animal feed can become radioactive by deposit of radioactive materials falling on it from the air or through rain water. Over time, radioactivity can also build up within food, as radionuclides are transferred through soil into crops or animals, or into rivers, lakes and the sea where fish and shellfish could take up the radionuclides. The severity of the risk depends on the radionuclide mix and the level of contaminant released. Radioactivity cannot contaminate food that is packaged; for example, tinned or plastic-wrapped food is protected from radioactivity as long as the food is sealed.
What are the potential health effects of consuming contaminated food ?
Food contaminated with radioactive material will not appear spoiled, but consuming such food will increase the amount of radioactivity a person is exposed to and could increase the health risks associated with exposure. For example, it could increase prevalence of certain cancers in the future. The exact effects on specific organs will depend on which radionuclides have been ingested and the amount being ingested. People in close vicinity of the nuclear plants who believe they have consumed contaminated produce or animal products should seek medical attention.
** See also:http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/7862588/as_japan_fights_to_stop_nuclear_meltdown.html?cat=15 **