How damaged nuclear plant's radiation gets into food, water
A crop of spinach is nearly ready for harvest at a field in Sukagawa in Fukushima Prefecture on Tuesday.
March 23rd, 2011
11:42 PM ET

How damaged nuclear plant's radiation gets into food, water

Officials in Japan's capital Wednesday advised parents not to give city tap water to infants after tests showed it had elevated levels of radioactive iodine - a problem attributed to a nuclear plant damaged in the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

Radiation exceeding legal limits also has been found in 11 types of vegetables and milk in prefectures surrounding the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, prompting some prefectures to stop shipping these products. The United States is preventing the import of milk, milk products, fresh vegetables and fruit from four Japanese prefectures, though certain products could be allowed in if tests show them to be safe, a Food and Drug Administration spokeswoman said.

Below are brief explanations of how the radiation can get into food and water and how dangerous the  food/water contamination in this instance might be.

Traveling from nuclear plant to food, water and milk

Radioactive particles escaping from the Fukushima Daiichi plant (see this interactive for how and why this is happening) bind to dust, traveling in the air for a distance before coming to ground, according to CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta. The particles, such as cesium-137 and iodine-131, contaminate farm produce and water simply by falling on them.

The large surface areas of leafy vegetables, such as spinach, make them likely to collect greater amounts of particles than many other produce types, said Marko Moscovitch, professor at Georgetown's Department of Radiation Medicine.

The main way these particles get into milk is when they fall on the grass eaten by cows.

What are the risks of consuming the food, milk and water?

Experts say little is known about how eating radiation-contaminated food affects people in the short- and long-term. But experts who have spoken with CNN say that the contamination levels reported so far appear to pose very little risk.

Dr. James Cox, an oncology professor at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, said he believes the radiation levels measured in these products pose a "nonexistent" immediate risk to humans, and "very low" long-term risk.

Spinach tested in a prefecture south of  Fukushima showed radiation up to 27 times greater than the legal limit. Gupta, however, said a person "would have to eat the contaminated spinach from Japan every day for one year to get the same amount of radiation you would get from one chest CT (computed tomography) scan."

A chest CT scan would expose a person to about 7 millisieverts of radiation. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission says that an average person gets about 3.1 millisieverts annually from natural sources, and an average American - thanks in part to medical diagnostic procedures and other man-made sources of radiation - gets about 6.2 millisieverts per year.

Even low radiation doses can damage or alter the DNA of irradiated cells, the NRC says. And the radiation protection community "conservatively assumes that any amount of radiation may pose some risk for causing cancer and hereditary effect, and that the risk is higher for higher radiation exposures," the NRC says.

But Gupta and Moscovitch say it's highly unlikely that the radiation reported so far in Japanese food would pose a risk to human health.

"(The radiation is) not negligible my any means. But impact on human health? Not likely," Gupta said Wednesday night on the CNN program "In the Arena."

Read more about what Cox - an expert on the effects of radiation on the survivors of Nagasaki and Hiroshima - has to say about the risks in this story, which also addresses the consumption of contaminated milk following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986.

The concern about infants and the contaminated water

Tokyo officials recommended withholding tap water from infants after government samples taken Tuesday night found 210 becquerels of radioactive iodine per kilogram of water - two times higher than the limit that the government considers safe for infants.

The amount of iodine detected was lower than the level considered safe for adults: 300 becquerels per kilogram. A liter of water weights 1 kilogram. A becquerel is a measurement of radioactive intensity by weight.

The level set for infants is "very conservative," Cox said, but elevated radiation levels are considered a problem for small children, because their thyroid glands are more susceptible to radioactive iodine.

"Erring on the side of caution for the extreme degree for children makes good sense," Cox said. For adults, "as far as the immediate health risk, something that would make people sick, I don't think that would come close to it."

Can radioactive contamination be removed from water?

The World Health Organization says standard water treatment procedures - including coagulation, sedimentation and filtration - might remove "significant amounts of radioactive contaminants." Other options including blending contaminated water with noncontaminated water to dilute the radioactive particles, the organization says.

CNN's Thom Patterson, Elizabeth Landau, Danielle Dellorto, Miriam Falco, Madison Park and Jason Hanna contributed to this report.

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Filed under: 2011 tsunami • Japan
soundoff (37 Responses)
  1. Cesar r

    @Johnny H: Thank you for your post. It was informative and useful. I love how you explain. @Jazz7 Sorry to hear that. Stay warm.

    March 24, 2011 at 10:50 am | Report abuse |
  2. Jazz7

    Thanks Cesar my friend

    March 24, 2011 at 10:57 am | Report abuse |
  3. Jazz7

    @ cesar: Need to concintrate on work now, but just wanted to ask if we could have a private conversation? Something I need to say . Did you ask someone how to text yet ?

    March 24, 2011 at 11:25 am | Report abuse |
  4. Cesar r

    Want to but aint been able w/work and limited time. I will though. I've never text before, I want to learn-bye 4now

    March 24, 2011 at 11:30 am | Report abuse |
  5. Jazz7

    ok, I understand

    March 24, 2011 at 11:35 am | Report abuse |
  6. erichwwk

    Before accepting anything that Dr. Cox has to say (shill?) in regards to health impacts of ionizing radiation, read this:

    M.D. Anderson private venture raises questions / Proton-therapy benefits at center won't merit costs of care, some say

    March 24, 2011 at 12:20 pm | Report abuse |
  7. adam

    Its concerning when experts say it "probably" won't have any affect and "likely would not" have any risk to long term health. When they use these false thought terms it raises concern. Why not speak to actual experts and specific physicians/ scientists who specialize in these matters as opposed to a Dr. Who offers overall advise and does not particularly advise patients daily nor is involved in direct contact with this field. One a year CT scans are fine, but how about that everday with out a lead vest and it going in your lungs and intestines every day.

    March 24, 2011 at 2:30 pm | Report abuse |
  8. chfexec

    Isn't anyone concerned about mercury contamination of soil and water from the environmentally favored CFL bulbs? Read a great post on this subject by JT on

    March 24, 2011 at 2:39 pm | Report abuse |
  9. prast

    That cause and effect

    March 24, 2011 at 7:21 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Jane Goldberg

    I always enjoy these articles-in fact I go to this sight everyday first thing.
    They are researched thoroughly as well.

    March 25, 2011 at 10:50 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Oregon

    Why are our news stations acting as though nothing is going on in at the Fukushima power plant????? Do you not the freedom to report as what is happening???? You know you are responsible to report to us and you will be held accountable. When you stand back and do nothing you are just as quilty as Tepco!! Please start reporting what is going on bring back the experts not your weather man to explain things to us. Thank You

    April 1, 2011 at 10:55 am | Report abuse |
  12. Oregon

    I would like to say that Racheal Maddow has reported that 3 mile island was not the only reactor that has had big problems in the U.S. There have been several. Thank you Racheal please keep the truth coming.

    April 1, 2011 at 10:59 am | Report abuse |
  13. Oregon

    To all of you out there that report whats going on to us your credibility is fading!

    April 1, 2011 at 11:13 am | Report abuse |
  14. Louis

    CNN is burying the truth.

    April 20, 2011 at 7:07 am | Report abuse |
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