News and Commentary by Steven Hoffman
As the crippled reactors in Japan continue to emit radiation into the
environment, the risk grows that it will appear in our food. Radiation has
already been detected in trace amounts in milk across the U.S., and in
strawberries, kale and other vegetables in California.
“The Swiss government Wednesday decided to exit nuclear energy, phasing out the
country’s existing nuclear plants and seeking alternative energy sources to
meet Switzerland’s energy needs, following widespread security concerns in the
wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.” – Dow Jones, May 25, 2011
“We believe we can show those countries who decide to abandon nuclear power—or
not start using it—how it is possible to achieve growth, creating jobs and
economic prosperity while shifting the energy supply toward renewable
energies.” – Chancellor Angela Merkel when announcing on May 30 that Germany
would abandon nuclear power by 2022.
Boulder, Colo. (June 10, 2011) – Nuclear energy is clean…until it isn’t.
The emerging reality of the ongoing nuclear reactor crisis in Fukushima,
Japan—now in its third month after a devastating earthquake and tsunami caused nuclear explosions at the plant 150 miles north of Tokyo—is that it is not under control at all. Three of the six reactors are in meltdown. The crippled reactors are acting like a huge dirty bomb, emitting significant quantities of radioactive isotopes that are, in fact, contaminating our air, water, soil and food in a steady stream that may continue for a long time.
And it’s not just affecting Japan, though they’re certainly getting the worst of it. Since the accident on March 12, radioactive fallout from Fukushima has been spreading to the U.S. and across the northern hemisphere. Elevated levels of radiation caused
by the meltdowns in Japan have been detected in drinking water across the
country, in rainwater, in soil, and in food grown on U.S. farms.
The mainstream media is not really reporting on this. Since the initial weeks
of the accident, there has been a disturbing silence. Tokyo Electric Power
Company (TEPCO), the utility that owns and operates the reactors, and the
government of Japan have handled public relations around this monumental
disaster about as well as BP handled the Gulf oil spill last summer, and they
are losing credibility fast. The radiation has leaked much faster than TEPCO’s
disclosure of information related to the crisis; it’s only now that we know
that three of the six reactors at the plant are in full meltdown. One of the
meltdowns occurred within hours of the accident on March 12, but was not
revealed until May 15, more than two months later.
Crisis, What Crisis?
In announcing the news, TEPCO admitted that it did not want the public to know
the extent of the accident early on to avoid panic. They continue to downplay
the time it will take to get the reactors under control and the threat this
unprecedented crisis presents to our food, health and environment. While TEPCO
has given a time estimate of six to nine months to control the reactors, on May
29 a senior TEPCO official admitted that it may be impossible to stabilize the
crippled plant by the beginning of 2012. One U.S. official, John Kelly, deputy
assistant secretary for nuclear reactor technologies at the U.S. Energy
Department, told the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in late May that the
Fukushima reactors are still in grave danger and may continue to vent
radioactive steam for a year or more, according to the Washington Post.
With the reactors in meltdown, TEPCO employees are racing to avoid a potential
“China Syndrome” as superhot nuclear fuel melts down through holes burned into
the steel and concrete containment vessels into the earth, thus liberating it
into the environment.
Additionally, highly toxic radioactive iodine, cesium, strontium, plutonium and
other toxic man-made radionuclides have leaked unabated since March 12 into the
ocean and atmosphere. The radiation is contaminating large areas of Japan.
Monitoring the ocean around the Fukushima plant, Greenpeace reported on May
26 that the contamination is spreading over a wide area and accumulating in sea
life, rather than simply dispersing like the Japanese authorities claimed would
Also, radiation continues to blow in a steady stream across the Pacific Ocean
toward North America, following the course of the jet stream in the atmosphere,
and major currents in the ocean that flow from Japan to America. It took less
than a month for radioactive iodine and cesium from the Fukushima nuclear
accident to first show up in U.S. milk, and it continues to be detected in
trace amounts in milk produced in California, one of the only states conducting
any kind of testing for radiation in food.
Independent Tests Indicate Radiation Is Entering the U.S. Food Chain
Authorities in the U.S. insist that there is no danger to public health or the
environment from the Fukushima nuclear crisis, and that levels of radiation
that have been detected in water, air, soil and food in North America since the
accident are in such minuscule quantities as to present little to no danger.
EPA discontinued its Fukushima radiation monitoring efforts, and FDA says there
is no danger to our food or seafood and therefore testing is not necessary.
There have been no calls since the accident for heightened nuclear safety
inspections or to upgrade or decommission aging nuclear power plants in the
Yet, in limited testing conducted by states and independent labs since the
accident, radioactive iodine and cesium—both toxic to human health—have
appeared at elevated levels in milk and vegetables produced in California.
Radiation has also been detected in milk sold in Arizona, Arkansas, Hawaii,
Vermont and Washington since the accident.
Elevated levels of radioactivity have also been detected in drinking water in
numerous municipalities from Los Angeles to Philadelphia, and in soil samples
tested in California. Fallout is blanketing America and will do so for a
prolonged period of time until they can somehow stop the crippled reactors from
leaking any more radiation into the environment—a formidable task.
On May 25, the University of California Berkeley Department of Nuclear
Engineering (UCB)—one of the few organizations testing food, soil, air and
water in the U.S.—reported that it had detected the highest level of
radioactive cesium 137 in nearly a month in raw milk samples taken from a dairy
in Sonoma County where the cows are grass fed. UCB also reported elevated
levels of cesium 134 and cesium 137 in pasteurized, homogenized milk samples
with a “best by” date of May 26 from a Bay Area organic dairy “where the
farmers are encouraged to feed their cows local grass.”
Iodine 131 in California Milk Suggests New Fallout Continues
The State of California reported on May 2 that it detected higher levels of
radioactive iodine 131 in milk samples tested at CalPoly Dairy Farm in San Luis
Obispo compared to milk tested at the end of March. Additionally, the new milk
samples contained trace amounts of radioactive cesium 134 and cesium 137, which
were not seen in the March samples. The presence of iodine 131, with a short
half-life of eight days, in the new milk samples indicates that even now,
nuclear reactions are occurring at the crippled Japanese plant, bringing fresh
fallout on a daily basis to Asia, North America and around the northern
The UCB nuclear engineering department emphasizes that levels of radiation
measured in food samples grown in the U.S. are very low, and that there is
little threat to public health from the fallout reaching the U.S. Yet they
continue to find radioactivity at heightened levels due to the Fukushima
meltdown in food grown in northern California—their chosen area of testing near
the university. Little to no testing is being done in the rest of the country.
Dairy farmers on the Big Island of Hawaii, on the other hand, are taking a
preventive approach to some of the highest levels of radiation detected in the
U.S., and are now feeding boron in the form of sodium borate to their cows and
goats at milking times along with kelp supplements as a way to help reduce
elevated levels of radiation in milk. The dairy farmers are also considering
applying boron to their pastures to mitigate radiation levels in the grass,
reported Energy News on May 25. Boron is reported to act as a natural radiation
absorber, and kelp may help prevent radioactive iodine from accumulating in the
Radiation Concentrates in Milk and Broad-leaf Vegetables
Radiation concentrates in milk because cows eat grass, and grass and
broad-leafed vegetables such as spinach and kale are among the first crops to
accumulate radiation from nuclear fallout when it comes down in rain and dust
and settles on the leaves and surrounding soil.
Organically raised cows are more vulnerable, as they are required to eat grass
as part of organic certification standards, reports NewHope360.com, an
industry news source. However, organic proponents ensure consumers that any
levels of radiation are minute and present no risk, and that the benefits of
consuming organic milk far outweigh any such risks.
In Japan, spinach grown in the region around Fukushima was banned soon after
the accident. Two months later, in mid-May, radiation above maximum allowable
limits was detected in tea leaves harvested from farms south of Tokyo—farms
that are 200 miles from the crippled reactors, indicating that Japan’s
radiation contamination problem is far from over. Radiation has also been
detected in potatoes and sweet potatoes in Japan. In fact, according to a
report published on May 29 by the Japan Agriculture Ministry, potatoes may
be more susceptible to radiation contamination than other vegetables. Sadly,
radiation also has been detected in breast milk from several women in the
Tokyo area, raising significant health risks for pregnant women, new mothers
In the U.S., certain fruit and vegetables grown in California are testing
positive for elevated levels of radiation from the Fukushima nuclear accident.
On May 16, UCB reported detectable levels of radioactive cesium 137 in samples
of kale, strawberries and grass grown in northern California. UCB has also
found higher than normal levels of cesium 134 and cesium 137 in foods grown in
the Bay Area, including spinach, arugula and wild-harvested mushrooms.
Eating Radiation Isn’t the Same as Flying in a Plane
The danger, of course, is that ingesting or inhaling long-lived, man-made
radioactive particles over a long period of time in our water, dust, soil and
food is very different than being exposed to electromagnetic radiation from a
television or cosmic radiation from a plane ride. Once it gets in the body,
lodging in bones, glands and other organs, it can damage DNA and cells for a
long time, significantly raising the cumulative risk of cancer. Radioactive
cesium 137 alone has a half-life of 30 years, where it can remain in the body
emanating radiation the whole time. The risks are particularly high for
pregnant women, infants and children.
Many scientists, including those at Physicians for Social Responsibility
(PSR), claim that no level of man-made toxic radiation in the air, water or
food is safe. “There is no safe level of radionuclide exposure, whether from
food, water or other sources. Period,” said Jeff Patterson, DO, immediate past
president of PSR, in late March. “Exposure to radionuclides, such as iodine 131
and cesium 137, increases the incidence of cancer. For this reason, every
effort must be taken to minimize the radionuclide content in food and water,”
“Consuming food containing radionuclides is particularly dangerous. If an
individual ingests or inhales a radioactive particle, it continues to irradiate
the body as long as it remains radioactive and stays in the body,” said Alan
Lockwood, MD, board member of PSR. “Children are much more susceptible to the
effects of radiation and stand a much greater chance of developing cancer than
adults,” said Andrew Kanter, MD, president-elect of PSR’s board. “So it is
particularly dangerous when they consume radioactive food or water.”
Europe Issues Caution on Certain Foods: Risks “No Longer Negligible”
In France, the respected radiological research institute CRIIRAD in
mid-April cautioned pregnant and breastfeeding women and children in Europe to
avoid eating certain foods due to the spread of radiation from Fukushima,
including milk and creamy cheese, and spinach and other broad leaf vegetables,
due to the potential health risks associated with ingesting radioactive
particles that may accumulate in these foods. In making the announcement,
CRIIRAD said the risks related to prolonged contamination among vulnerable
groups of the population can no longer be considered “negligible” and it is now
necessary to avoid “risky behavior.” CRIIRAD also estimated that the West Coast
of the U.S. is being subjected to eight to 10 times higher levels of radiation
than Europe from the nuclear meltdown in Japan.
Chris Busby, Ph.D., Scientific Secretary of the European Committee on
Radiation Risk, who published a “Don’t Panic” guide in early April saying that
the danger was insignificant, later changed his opinion. In an April 24
statement to Washington’s Blog, Busby said, “…since then I have re-thought
this advice as the thing is still fissioning and releasing 10 to the fourteen
Becquerels a day. This will mean that strontium 90 and uranium and particulates
will be building up in the USA and Europe. I will assess this later but for now
I think it prudent to stop drinking milk.”
This is not something the dairy industry—conventional or organic—nor the
produce industry, much of which is based in California, want to hear. One
official at a major California-based organic produce company told me, “It made
the hair stand up on the back of my neck when I first heard the news about
radioactive spinach in Japan.”
What Can We Do About It?
While we may not be able to affect what’s going on at Fukushima, we could
certainly try to prevent such an accident from happening again. We need to
express our concern and speak out to the President, who supports nuclear power,
and Congress and insist that aging reactors be inspected regularly, upgraded
for safety, and decommissioned when necessary. Letter writing works when you’ve
got lots of constituents doing it.
This global-scale crisis happened from just one nuclear power plant. There are
104 nuclear reactors in operation in the U.S., with a number of them located in
major earthquake and tsunami zones in heavily populated areas along the West
Coast of the United States. God forbid something should happen close to home;
we are in no way prepared to handle an accident of this magnitude. Heck, we
couldn’t even get help to the victims of Hurricane Katrina in a timely manner,
let alone evacuate all of southern California, for example.
We also should insist on increased, not scaled-back, testing for radiation in
our air, water, soil and food. It is unconscionable that our public
institutions established to safeguard food, health and the environment have
neglected this responsibility. Food producers, too, need timely access to this
information from federal, state and regulatory agencies.
What to do about food? As I make my livelihood in the food industry, it is
difficult for me to say that pregnant women, breastfeeding moms, infants and
children might want to avoid certain foods such as milk and broad-leaf
vegetables that may present a higher risk of radiation exposure, and to check
the source of their drinking water.
However, as an advocate of public health and the environment, that’s what I
think needs to be said. I would refer readers to CRIIRAD‘s recommendations
to certain vulnerable segments of the European population. I believe our food,
water, health and environment have been terribly compromised by this global
nuclear catastrophe, and I also think that, after poor Japan, which may have to
evacuate large portions of its sovereign land, the U.S. is directly downwind
and downstream, so to speak, from the Fukushima disaster.
What our family is doing this summer is buying more locally grown food. We live
in Colorado and I’m hoping the Rocky Mountains will take some of the stuff out
of the air. But I am concerned for my friends on the West Coast and Hawaii. And
frankly, the whole country, hemisphere and world will continue to be exposed to
the fallout emitted from one nuclear power plant located thousands of miles
away. And my prayers go to Japan. The world is truly a small place.
In my lifetime, there has been Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and now Fukushima,
which is quickly surpassing Chernobyl as one of the world’s worst nuclear
disasters…and those are just the ones they’ve told us about. Basically, we
have experienced a major nuclear accident about once every 20 years. That is
not good odds, given that there are hundreds of reactors around the world. This
type of incident could happen anywhere, whether it be from natural disaster or
human error. With Fukushima in full meltdown, it is a very good time to speak
out that nuclear power is not safe, and the cost is way too high.
Get the Facts: News and Resources
All the facts I have included in this commentary have come from the following
sources. These are excellent resources, backed with scientific credibility, to
inform you about what’s really going on at Fukushima and its impact on our
environment and health.
• Energy News
One of the best, comprehensive sources of news and scientific information
related to the Fukushima nuclear accident, with information on food, milk, soil
• Fairewinds Associates
An excellent and informative series of no-nonsense news videos featuring
nuclear energy expert Arnold Gundersen reporting on the accident.
• University of California Berkeley Department of Nuclear Engineering
Results from monitoring of Bay Area food, milk, air, water and soil.
• Russia Today
Russia’s English-speaking news source, with coverage of the Fukushima disaster
from a Russian perspective.
• NHK World
International news service of NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation), with
in-depth coverage in English.
Pestering Japanese authorities like it chases whaling ships, Greenpeace
published on May 26 that it detected radiation in marine life around the
Fukushima plant at levels above the maximum safety limit.
Columnist Jeff McMahon has been reporting extensively on the Fukushima
• Wall Street Journal/Dow Jones
– Wall Street Journal is subscription based, however, Ameritrade provides a
headline and news brief feed from Dow Jones Newswire.
– WSJ’s Japan Real Time nuclear coverage.
• New York Times
– Staff writer Matthew L. Wald has been covering the Fukushima crisis.
– Reporter Hiroki Tabuchi has also been covering the story.
– Writer Martin Fackler’s coverage of the Fukushima accident.
Extensive coverage from the business and financial news source.
• Compass Natural
Kelp and the Fallout Zone: Foods that help protect against radiation.
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