Global perspective Human stories

Japan: UN agencies offer food safety help in nuclear contamination crisis

Japan: UN agencies offer food safety help in nuclear contamination crisis

Nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan, experienced system failure after the massive quake and tsunami
United Nations agencies today pledged their “knowledge and expertise” to help Japan tackle food safety issues arising from radioactive contamination spewed out by the nuclear power plant that was severely damaged by a devastating earthquake and tsunami 12 days ago.

In joint documents issued in response to “some of the growing international concerns over the safety of food produced in Japan,” the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and World Health Organization (WHO) said that while some foods produced in Japan are likely to be contaminated by radionuclides at levels unsuitable for human consumption, there is no evidence food has been contaminated in any other country.

“Since the events of 11 March, thousands of lives have been lost, and many homes and buildings have been damaged or destroyed by the earthquake and tsunami,” said a statement issued by FAO Director General Jacques Diouf, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano and WHO Director General Margaret Chan. “Food safety issues are an additional dimension of the emergency.”

The agencies noted that radioactivity from the stricken Fukushima Daiichi power plant has been detected in some vegetables and milk, with radioactive iodine present in concentrations above Japanese regulatory limits and caesium showing up at lower concentrations.

Radioactive iodine, the main contaminant detected so far, can accumulate in the body, of ingested, particularly the thyroid gland, increasing the risk of thyroid cancer, particularly in children. But it has a half-life of eight days and decays naturally within weeks. Taking potassium iodide is an established method to prevent the accumulation of radioactive iodine in the thyroid.

Ingestion of food contaminated with radioactive caesium can have long-term health effects. In contrast to radioactive iodine, it can linger in the environment for many years and present a longer-term problem for food production, threatening human health. The situation has to be monitored carefully, the agencies said.

General advice to food consumers and producers include protecting food and animal fodder stored in the open by covering them with plastic impermeable tarpaulins; closing ventilation in greenhouses; bringing livestock in from pastures and move them into barns; and harvesting ripe crops and covering them before fallout has been recorded; after which they should not be harvested.

The agencies advise that people avoid the following longer-term actions in areas confirmed to be seriously contaminated: consuming locally produced milk or vegetables; slaughtering animals; consuming and harvesting aquatic animals and plants, including fish, shellfish, and algae; hunting; and gathering mushrooms or other wild or collected foods.

In a daily briefing on the crisis, IAEA Special Adviser on Scientific and Technical Affairs Graham Andrew cited some positive developments with regard to electrical power, which is now available at units one, two and four; while unit three has lighting but no power for its equipment or instruments. Power lines and emergency diesel back-up engines were knocked out by the quake and tsunami.

As in the past, he said no significant risk to human health has so far been identified, but warned that the overall situations “remains of serious concern.” A second IAEA monitoring team in now on the ground to help check on radiation.