Fear is spreading faster than contamination following leaks of radioactive material at the damaged nuclear power plant in Japan. While the situation is changing rapidly, so far any potential threat to food, water and air safety remains minimal.
Japan has one of the world’s best food safety systems and imports more food than it exports, but some nations have expressed concerns that foods produced in Japan might be contaminated with radioactive material. Asian countries surrounding Japan are testing food imports. Australia and the European Union announced that they would be conducting tests as well, and Italy has put a temporary ban on all food coming from Japan.
However, as of now, there is little reason to worry about the safety of Japanese food products, according to Dr. Richard Morin, professor of Radiologic Physics and Chairman of the American College of Radiology’s Safety Committee.
“From what we know right now, most of the radioactive material has blown out into the atmosphere east of Japan, and as long as that continues to be the case, there won’t be much contamination on the island of Japan. That would lessen the alarm about foodstuffs,” he says.
And the likelihood is slim that some foods will be coming from Japan in the near future. Many fishing fleets there are in ruins following tsunami.
While tiny amounts of radiation were detected in the water supply in the area surrounding the plant, according to Fuji TV Wednesday morning, amounts were too low to be immediately harmful to human health. Officials will continue to monitor the situation.
Preventative Measures: Potassium Iodide
Sales of potassium iodide pills, taken to combat the negative effects of radiation, have skyrocketed in the United States in the past week, as people worry that radiation will spread through the atmosphere from Japan to the West Coast.
Potassium Iodide works by filling the thyroid with a non-harmful type of iodine, so that Iodine-131, the harmful element arising from nuclear radiation, cannot be absorbed into the thyroid when ingested. The pill will work to prevent Iodide-131 ingested in any way, via food, air or water.
While Morin says potassium iodide is indeed effective, he says the current nuclear leak does not pose a serious enough threat to warrant taking these pills.
“It would be most likely that exposure to the thyroid from any Iodine-131 that would make it across the ocean would probably produce a radiation effect not a whole lot different than if you flew from Seattle to Boston,” he says.
He says that, at current levels, most of the radio nuclides containing this harmful element will not make it to the United States, but will drop out of the atmosphere into the ocean or be dispersed by the prevailing winds.
“The concentration, that is the amount of radioactivity per cubic foot of air, goes down dramatically as it travels.”
And officials are hoping that people’s concerns will dissipate along with the nuclear particles as they attempt to get accurate measures of the level of radioactivity near the Fukushima Daiichi facility site.
U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu told Congress Wednesday that the U.S. will deploy equipment to help measure radiation exposure on the ground and in the air in Japan. Meanwhile, Michael O’Leary, the World Health Organization’s representative in China, said there’s no evidence at this time of any significant international spread of radioactive materials. WHO also called on people to stay calm and not to spread rumors.