As the crippled reactors in Japan continue to emit radiation into the environment, the risk grows that it will appear in our food. Radiation has already been detected in trace amounts in milk across the U.S., and in strawberries, kale and other vegetables in California.
While those are agricultural products, there's little doubt that radiation at some trace amount also may make it into processed food.
The emerging reality of the ongoing nuclear reactor crisis in Fukushima, Japan, now in its fourth month, is that it is not under control at all. Three of the six reactors are in meltdown. The crippled reactors are acting like a huge dirty bomb, emitting significant quantities of radioactive isotopes that are, in fact, contaminating our air, water, soil and food in a steady stream that may continue for a long time.
And it's not just affecting Japan, though they're certainly getting the worst of it. Since the accident on March 12, radioactive fallout from Fukushima has been spreading to the U.S. and across the northern hemisphere. Elevated levels of radiation caused by the meltdowns in Japan have been detected in drinking water across the U.S., in rainwater, in soil and in food grown here.
Authorities in the U.S. insist there is no danger to public health or the environment. EPA discontinued its Fukushima radiation monitoring efforts, and FDA says there is no danger to our food or seafood and therefore testing is not necessary. There have been no calls since the accident for heightened nuclear safety inspections nor to upgrade or decommission aging nuclear power plants in the U.S.
Yet, in limited testing conducted by states and independent labs since the accident, radioactive iodine and cesium — both toxic to human health — have appeared at elevated levels in milk and vegetables produced in California, one of the only states conducting any kind of testing for radiation in food. Radiation also has been detected in milk sold in Arizona, Arkansas, Hawaii, Vermont and Washington since the accident.
Elevated levels of radioactivity have been detected in drinking water in numerous municipalities from Los Angeles to Philadelphia, and in soil samples tested in California. Fallout is blanketing America and will do so for a prolonged period of time until Japanese authorities can somehow stop the crippled reactors from leaking any more radiation into the environment — a formidable task.
On May 25, the University of California Berkeley Department of Nuclear Engineering, one of the few organizations testing food, soil, air and water in the U.S., reported it had detected the highest level of radioactive cesium 137 in nearly a month in raw milk samples taken from a dairy in Sonoma County, where the cows are grass fed. UCB also reported elevated levels of cesium 134 and cesium 137 in pasteurized, homogenized milk samples with a "best by" date of May 26 from a Bay Area organic dairy.
On May 16, UCB reported detectable levels of cesium 137 in samples of kale, strawberries and grass grown in northern California. UCB has also found higher than normal levels of cesium 134 and cesium 137 in foods grown in the Bay Area, including spinach, arugula and wild-harvested mushrooms.
The State of California reported on May 2 it detected higher levels of radioactive iodine 131 in milk samples tested at CalPoly Dairy Farm in San Luis Obispo compared to milk tested at the end of March. Additionally, the new milk samples contained trace amounts of radioactive cesium 134 and cesium 137, which were not seen in the March samples.
This is data from May, not March, when the Fukushima accident happened. So the worst is not over; in fact, the worst may have just begun.
The presence of iodine 131, with a short half-life of eight days, in the new milk samples indicates that even now, nuclear reactions are occurring at the crippled Japanese plant, bringing fresh fallout on a daily basis to Asia, North America and around the northern hemisphere.
Outside of California, little to no testing is being done in the rest of the country. Dairy farmers on the Big Island of Hawaii, on the other hand, are taking a preventive approach to some of the highest levels of radiation detected in the U.S., and are now feeding boron in the form of sodium borate to their cows and goats at milking times along with kelp supplements as a way to help reduce elevated levels of radiation in milk. The dairy farmers are also considering applying boron to their pastures to mitigate radiation levels in the grass, reported Energy News on May 25. Boron is reported to act as a natural radiation absorber, and kelp may help prevent radioactive iodine from accumulating in the body.
Despite what experts have said, eating radiation isn't the same as flying in a plane. Ingesting or inhaling long-lived, man-made radioactive particles over a long period of time in our water, dust, soil and food is very different than being exposed to electromagnetic radiation from a television or cosmic radiation from a plane ride. Once it gets in the body, lodging in bones, glands and other organs, it can damage DNA and cells for a long time, significantly raising the cumulative risk of cancer. Radioactive cesium 137 alone has a half-life of 30 years, where it can remain in the body emanating radiation the whole time. The risks are particularly high for pregnant women, infants and children.
Many scientists claim that no level of man-made toxic radiation in the air, water or food is safe. "Exposure to radionuclides, such as iodine 131 and cesium 137, increases the incidence of cancer. For this reason, every effort must be taken to minimize the radionuclide content in food and water," Dr. Jeff Patterson, immediate past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility, said in late March.
Europe has recognized the risk. In France, the respected radiological research institute CRIIRAD in mid-April cautioned pregnant and breastfeeding women and children to avoid eating certain foods, including milk and creamy cheese and spinach and other broad leaf vegetables. CRIIRAD said the risks related to prolonged contamination among vulnerable groups of the population can no longer be considered "negligible" and it is now necessary to avoid "risky behavior." CRIIRAD also estimated that the West Coast of the U.S. is being subjected to eight to 10 times higher levels of radiation than Europe.
Chris Busby, Ph.D., scientific secretary of the European Committee on Radiation Risk, who published a "Don't Panic" guide in early April saying that the danger was insignificant, later changed his opinion. In an April 24 statement to Washington's Blog, Busby said, "Since then I have re-thought this advice as the thing is still fissioning and releasing 10 to the 14th Becquerels a day. This will mean that strontium 90 and uranium and particulates will be building up in the USA and Europe. I will assess this later but for now I think it prudent to stop drinking milk."
What Can Food Processors Do About Fukushima Food Safety?
While we may not be able to affect what's going on at Fukushima, we could certainly try to prevent such an accident from happening again. We need to express our concern and speak out to the President, who supports nuclear power, and to Congress and insist that aging reactors be inspected regularly, upgraded for safety and decommissioned when necessary. Letter writing works when you've got lots of constituents doing it.
This global-scale crisis happened from just one nuclear power plant. There are 104 nuclear reactors in operation in the U.S., with a number of them located in major earthquake and tsunami zones in heavily populated areas along the West Coast. God forbid something should happen close to home; we are in no way prepared to handle an accident of this magnitude.
We also should insist on increased, not scaled-back, testing for radiation in our air, water, soil and food. It is unconscionable that our public institutions established to safeguard food, health and the environment have neglected this responsibility. Food producers, too, need timely access to this information from federal, state and regulatory agencies.
What to do about food? As I make my livelihood in the food industry, it is difficult for me to say that pregnant women, breastfeeding moms, infants and children might want to avoid certain foods and to check the source of their drinking water. However, as an advocate of public health and the environment, that's what I think needs to be said. I would refer readers to CRIIRAD's recommendations to certain vulnerable segments of the European population.
I believe our food, water, health and environment have been terribly compromised by this global nuclear catastrophe. I also think that, after poor Japan, which may have to evacuate large portions of its sovereign land, the U.S. is directly downwind and downstream, so to speak, from the Fukushima disaster.
What our family is doing this summer is buying more locally grown food. We live in Colorado and I'm hoping the Rocky Mountains will take some of the stuff out of the air. But I am concerned for my friends on the West Coast and Hawaii. And frankly, the whole country, hemisphere and world will continue to be exposed to the fallout emitted from one nuclear power plant located thousands of miles away. And my prayers go to Japan. The world is truly a small place.
In my lifetime, there has been Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and now Fukushima, which is quickly surpassing Chernobyl as one of the world's worst nuclear disasters. And those are just the ones they've told us about. Basically, we have experienced a major nuclear accident about once every 20 years. That is not good odds, given that there are hundreds of reactors around the world. This type of incident could happen anywhere, whether it be from natural disaster or human error. With Fukushima in full meltdown, it is a very good time to speak out that nuclear power is not safe, and the cost is way too high.