In the News: FDA Examines Japanese Imports for Radiation Contamination


L.HoltLast week the FDA issued an import alert for all products from Japan. The notice states that all milk and fresh produce products from Fukushima, Ibaraki, Tochigi and Gunma prefectures must be examined for radionuclide contamination before entering the U.S. food supply. Seafood products from Japan, a new concern due to the high levels of both iodine and cesium leaking into the ocean, will also be diverted for testing.

The FDA has also issued a Public Health Focus entitled “Radiation Safety” that provides information regarding the threat of radiation and possible medicines or products that may be used if radioactive iodine is released into your local environment. They do not recommend that U.S. residents consume potassium iodine even as a preventative measure. (Potassium iodine protects the thyroid from absorbing harmful radiation, thus lowering cancer risk. If taken unnecessarily it can have harmful side effects.)

Is the risk of radioactive exposure really so high that U.S. consumers need to worry about it? Probably not. According to a recent Time magazine article, Japan has banned the sale of several products from areas affected by the radiation leaks, including milk and spinach. (Contaminated milk has often been blamed for the large number of thyroid cancer cases after the Chernobyl explosion of 1986.) Even if a product were contaminated, the U.S. imports so little food from Japan that it’s unlikely to be an issue here. 

Japanese milk is one of the products that may have too much radioactive iodine.
Photo by localjapantimes/Courtesy

This isn’t to say that the food we buy doesn’t have radioactive elements in it—a lot of it does (from atomic weapons tests in the mid 20th century, not from Japan’s disaster). Realistically, we consume radioactive elements every day. But the amount is small enough that it’s not considered a health risk. There are acceptable limits in place for the amount of iodine that can be present in foods, and it’s those limits that any Japanese imports will be compared to. And even if it is contaminated, you’d have to eat a lot of food to have much of a negative impact on your health. According to Dr. Cliffor Chao, the chief radiologist of New York-Presbyterian Hospital, 2 pounds of contaminated spinach would equal the amount of radiation you absorb during a CT scan of your head. A report from a British environmental radiation group states that drinking the highest-measured iodine-contaminated milk for two weeks would result in the same amount of radiation absorption as just living within our natural background radiation for a year.

Instead of focusing on our fear of this potential-but-unlikely danger of contamination, perhaps we should instead be giving our attention to how we can help all those individuals who have been personally affected by the tragedy in Japan, and on our own potential response to such a disaster.  
If you are worried about radiation exposure, for any reason, it’s important to be aware of your treatment choices—and that there are lots of scams out there. Please speak with a health professional before self-medicating.

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