Radiation and Food: Is There Cause for Concern?

By Caroline Homan, Food Education Coordinator
Since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the subsequent nuclear fallout from the Fukushima nuclear power plant, there has been concern that radioactive substances could find their way into our food supply, causing food safety concerns.

From the information I have gathered from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and independent news sources, it appears that the amount of radiation detected in our food, air, and water is currently well below levels that would raise concern and is not expected to increase.

Here’s a snapshot of what is currently happening to monitor our food supply and what effects we have seen at City Market:

As of March 22, the FDA has issued an Import Alert for Japanese dairy products and fresh fruits and vegetables produced or processed in the four prefectures closest to the power plant. As of the time of this writing, these products are not allowed to enter the United States food supply. Other products from this geographic area, including seafood, are not subject to the Import Alert but will be monitored and tested for radioactive substances before entering the food system. You can read an in-depth report from the FDA about how it is monitoring radiation and food safety.

Meanwhile, the EPA is monitoring radioactive particles in the atmosphere, drinking water, and milk supply. You can read regular updates on their website.

Milk represents a special case. Levels of radioactive substances entering the air and water tend to become diluted; however, according to an article by Sue Hubbard, MD, if they are deposited on grass eaten by cows, “the cows will re-concentrate it in their milk by a factor of 1,000”. This is usually a concern with fresh milk, not aged dairy products, as the radioactive compounds dissipate over time (radioactive iodine, or iodine-131, is the name of one of the particles tested for, and has a half-life of just 8 days).

On March 30, the FDA and EPA issued a joint press release reporting that tests of milk in Spokane, Washington indicated the milk had very low levels of radiation and those levels were expected to drop even further. In Vermont, testing carried out by the EPA on March 30 and reported in an April 9 press release by the Vermont Department of Health indicated miniscule levels of a radioactive compound called cesium-137 in a milk sample taken in Montpelier, and it was not attributed to the nuclear fallout from Fukushima.

You may wonder what, if any, impact the Fukushima disaster has had on products carried by City Market. In the days following the nuclear meltdown, many customers inquired about purchasing potassium iodide tablets, a supplement approved by the FDA that can be used to treat serious radiation exposure. For about two weeks, the demand for potassium iodide was quite heavy, and the supplements were out of stock with the main distributor. Potassium iodide (a salt of stable iodine), works by preventing the absorption of radioactive iodine particles into the thyroid gland, and usually should be taken within 3-4 hours of radiation exposure. People who live near a nuclear power plant are recommended to have this on hand. City Market’s Wellness Department initially directed people to kelp tablets, a naturally-derived concentrated form of iodine, and it is currently well stocked with both potassium iodide supplements and kelp tablets. However, it is important to know that these do not play a role in the prevention of radioactive exposure and may even lead to thyroid problems (goiter) if taken in excess. You can read more about potassium iodide and recommended emergency response to radiation exposure at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Finally, Eden Foods, a distributor of traditional Japanese foods including sea vegetables carried by City Market and many other Co-ops around the country, issued a press release on April 13 stating that it was preventatively monitoring its products leaving Japan for radioactive levels and that so far, no elevated levels were found in any samples. Samples of selected products will be warehoused and tested by the FDA before being distributed, even as Eden Foods arranges for alternative sourcing of certain products.

While it seems clear that, for the time being, we do not need to be concerned about higher than normal levels of radiation in our food supply because of the Fukushima nuclear power disaster, I was moved to investigate this issue of the many forms of exposure to radiation we may now encounter in our everyday lives, including from our own Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, more powerful X-ray technologies in hospitals and airports, irradiated and microwaved foods, and others. I will be following reports about radiation and health with great interest.