The WHO said yesterday that radiation in food after an earthquake damaged a Japanese nuclear plant was more serious than previously thought, eclipsing signs of progress in a battle to avert a catastrophic meltdown in its reactors.
News of progress at the nuclear plant was overshadowed by mounting concern that radioactive particles already released into the atmosphere have contaminated food and water supplies.
“Quite clearly it’s a serious situation,” Peter Cordingley, Manila-based spokesman for the WHO regional office for the Western Pacific, told reporters in a telephone interview. “It’s a lot more serious than anybody thought in the early days when we thought that this kind of problem can be limited to 20 to 30 kilometers ... It’s safe to suppose that some contaminated produce got out of the contamination zone.”
However, he said there was no evidence of contaminated food from Fukushima reaching other countries.
Fukushima is the world’s worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl, but signs are that it is far less severe than the Ukrainian disaster.
“The few measurements of radiation reported in food so far are much lower than around Chernobyl in 1986, but the full picture is still emerging,” said Malcolm Crick, secretary of the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation.
Japan’s health ministry has urged some residents near the plant to stop drinking tap water after high levels of radioactive iodine were detected.
Cases of contaminated vegetables and milk have already stoked anxiety, despite assurances from officials that the levels are not dangerous. The government has prohibited the sale of spinach from all four prefectures near the plant and also banned sales of raw milk from Fukushima Prefecture.
There were no major reports of contaminated food in Tokyo, a city of about 13 million people. City officials, however, said higher-than-standard levels of iodine were found in an edible form of chrysanthemum.
“From reports I have heard so far, it seems that the levels of radioactive iodine and cesium in milk and some foodstuffs are significantly higher than government limits,” said Jim Smith, a specialist in earth and environmental sciences at Britain’s Portsmouth University. “This doesn’t mean that consumption of these products is necessarily an immediate threat, as limits are set so that foodstuffs can be safely consumed over a fairly long period of time. Nevertheless, for foodstuffs which are found to be above limits, bans on sale and consumption will have to be put in place in the affected areas.”
Japan is a net importer of food, but has substantial exports — mainly fruit, vegetables, dairy products and seafood — with its biggest markets in Hong Kong, China and the US.
China will monitor food imported from Japan, Xinhua news agency said, citing the country’s quality control watchdog. South Korea will expand radioactivity inspection to processed and dried agricultural Japanese food, from just fresh produce.
In Taipei, one of the top Japanese restaurants in the city is offering diners the use of a radiation gauge in case they were nervous about the food.
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