Image: A woman shops for fruit at a Japanese department store in Hong Kong
Tyrone Siu  /  Reuters
A woman shops for fruit at a Japanese department store in Hong Kong March 21. The World Health Organization said that radiation in food after an earthquake damaged a Japanese nuclear plant was a "serious situation."
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 3/23/2011 9:19:02 AM ET 2011-03-23T13:19:02

The Food and Drug Administration said Tuesday it will halt imports of dairy products and produce from the area of Japan where a nuclear reactor is leaking radiation.

The FDA said those foods will be detained at entry and will not be sold to the public. The agency previously said it would just step up screening of those foods.

Other foods imported from Japan, including seafood, still will be sold to the public but screened first for radiation.

On Wednesday a spike in radiation in Tokyo tap water caused new worries about food safety. Broccoli was added to the list of contaminated vegetables.

Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex has been leaking radiation after it was damaged in a devastating earthquake and tsunami earlier this month. The sea near the nuclear plant has also shown elevated levels of radioactive iodine and cesium, prompting the government to test seafood.

Japanese foods make up less than 4 percent of all U.S. imports, and the FDA said it expects no risk to the U.S. food supply from radiation. Officials and health experts say the doses are low and not a threat to human health unless the tainted products are consumed in abnormally excessive quantities.

Still, the World Health Organization said this week that Japan should act quickly to ensure that no contaminated foods are sold. The most common imports from Japan to the United States are seafood, snack foods, and processed fruits and vegetables.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, the top Democrat on the House subcommittee that controls FDA spending, wrote agency officials Tuesday questioning how they could say with certainty that there is no threat to the U.S. food supply from Japanese radiation. She noted that the FDA is not always able to track where food production facilities are located in other countries.

Food safety advocates long have expressed concern over the agency's lack of money for reliable inspections abroad. A food safety overhaul bill signed into law by President Barack Obama earlier this year would increase inspections of foreign food facilities that export to the United States.

David Acheson, a former FDA associate commissioner of foods, acknowledged concerns about the safety of imported foods and the lack of agency resources. But he said the agency prioritizes risky situations like the one in Japan.

"Whenever there is a threat, then resources appear," he said.

Low risk to those in U.S.
Still, experts say that at current levels, the contamination holds no risk for American consumers and only a minor, manageable, risk for people living near the damaged nuclear complex.

While radioactive iodine 131 and cesium 137 have been detected in vegetables and plants near the stricken nuclear reactors, the levels are low enough that they don’t pose a health threat at the moment, says Andrew Maidment, an associate professor of radiology and chief of physics and radiology at the University of Pennsylvania. Of course, that could change if the situation at the plant worsens.

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Already, Japan has banned sales of milk and spinach in the regions near the nuclear power plant. As for seafood, the Japanese are currently monitoring radioactivity in the waters near the power plant and are reporting results to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Elevated levels of radiation were detected in seawater samples taken Tuesday near the damaged plant, although officials said there was no cause for alarm.

The ocean's immense size would disperse the radiation so fish should not be in danger even if the levels do go up, said Maidment. However, shellfish could pose a problem.

“You might see a problem with clams and scallops,” he explains. “They are farmed in very shallow water very close to the shore. So we’ll have to rely on (Japan's) surveillance system.” If contamination is spotted in shellfish, Maidment says the Japanese will stop exporting the seafood, but, again, very little is exported from Japan to the U.S.

The Asian countries surrounding Japan — including China and South Korea — have begun radiation monitoring of food imports from Japan.

Levels set low
Ever since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, when it became clear that contaminated food could lead to cancers, government agencies around the world set a very low threshold for triggering actions such as banning sales of radiation-tainted foods, says Norman Kleiman, a environmental health scientist at the Mailman School of Public Health and director of the Eye Radiation Environmental Research Laboratory, both at Columbia University.

“Those levels are orders of magnitude below the point where you can detect an actual health effect,” Kleiman says. “They are set very low so that we can protect those who are the most susceptible — children and pregnant mothers.”

But what’s being measured in Japan is far less than what was found in the areas surrounding Chernobyl, Kleiman adds. So, even though the levels are above normal, they are still low enough that you would have to consume large amounts of tainted foods to raise your risk of cancer, Maidment says.

All food contains some sort of radiation, Maidment noted, as do many products we keep in our houses. Bananas, for example, contain a radioactive form of potassium. And it's not just food; granite counter-tops are constantly emitting a weak stream of radiation.

“Those counters are the single most radioactive material you bring into the house,” Maidment says. “You prepare food on them and you don’t even think about it.”

The issue with radiation is dose, experts say. And right now, the dose Americans could get from the tainted foods in Japan is very low.

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Beyond this, the most common form of contamination — iodine 131 — is an isotope that decays to its non-radioactive form very quickly. “It will be down 100-fold in two months,” says Maidment. “And that’s why it makes sense to use contaminated dairy products for powdered milk or cheese. By the time the cheese and powdered milk are consumed, they will be fine.”

If the Soviet government had told people about the radiation leaks right after the Chernobyl explosions, many thyroid cancers could have been prevented, says Dr. Yuri Nikiforov, a professor of pathology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Nikiforov, a freshly minted doctor practicing in Belarus when the Chernobyl accident occurred, saw first-hand the damage iodine-131 could do to children.

“After Chernobyl, there were about 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer and those were mostly in individuals exposed at a very young age — children under 5,” Nikiforov says. “Half of those might have been prevented if the children had been kept inside and told not to drink fresh milk.”

That’s exactly what Japanese parents should do if iodine 131 levels climb, he says.

But based on the experience with the Soviet reactor disaster, there probably won’t be a problem with ocean-going fish, Maidment says. “After Chernobyl, there wasn’t much radioactivity measured in fish from the Baltic Sea,” he adds. “If there wasn’t a problem in the Baltic where the refresh rate isn’t huge, there probably won’t be a problem in the waters off Japan.”

The Associated Press and msnbc.com contributor Linda Carroll added to this report.

© 2013 msnbc.com

Video: Tsunami makes heroes and victims of same family

  1. Closed captioning of: Tsunami makes heroes and victims of same family

    >>> now we turn to our ongoing coverage of the disaster in japan. the aftereffects of the quake, the tsunami, the continuing nuclear crisis. it's hard to believe, but air measurement devices here in the u.s. have detected trace amounts of radiation in the air, minuscule amounts to be sure. it came ashore first on the west coast where it was picked up in seattle and the canadian coast. now it's been measured in the eastern u.s. radiation has been found in the sea water near the nuclear plant as well as milk and vegetables from that region. at the fukushima nuclear plant power cables have been attached to six reactors. it could take days or weeks of safety checks before the water cooling systems are back up in operation. the human suffering from the crisis at that plant continues. chief science correspondent robert bazell reports again tonight from tokyo on one family that's been torn apart from this.

    >> reporter: 190 miles south of the reactors is a super arena, usually home to hockey, volleyball and tennis. now just home. a refuge for people. she wears a mask not against radiation but catching a cold. the morning after the quake, they fled their home with nothing.

    >> as i did not expect to be in the situation that i am in now. i did not bring anything with me.

    >> reporter: the bigger worry, she had to leave her husband behind because he works at the fukushima facility. she's worried, but also proud of his bravery. i asked him son to do his best. his father is doing his best to deal with the current crisis.

    >> reporter: about 2300 people are camped out here. some to escape the dangers of radiation, others who lost their homes in the earthquake and tsunami. there are bins with the items for every day living. toothbrushes, linens, diapers. the kinds of things people don't realize they left behind until they need it. so many volunteers are showing up, they can't take any more, they've reached their limit for the day. this woman says she couldn't watch and do nothing.

    >> translator: i felt the urge to want to help. i felt i was going to go mad if i did not do anything.

    >> reporter: while she can't call her husband, he calls her every day.

    >> confirming each other's safety.

    >> reporter: safe for now, uncertain of what the future holds. she hopes some day to go home, but fears she won't be able to stay for good. robert bazell , nbc news, japan.

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