Japan: Food And Water Contamination

japan narita

Photo: ap

Food and Water Safety

Japan faces food and water contamination concerns on top of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis.  The cascading catastrophe has clearly entered a second phase.  The concerns about tainted food and water may add extra psychological, sociological and economic dimensions on top of the severe assaults the Japanese people have recently endured.  Multiple tragedies have left tens of thousands of people, dead, injured and missing in Japan.

Drinking Water, Rain, Water and Dust

Drinking water, rain water and dust are showing signs of being radioactively tainted.  The Health Ministry has advised a village in Fukushima prefecture not to drink tap water because of radioactive iodine in its supply.  Tests also show traces of radioactivity in Tokyo’s drinking water although the measurement is still significantly below the legal safe limit.  Tokyo’s tap water, where radioactive iodine turned up a few days ago, now has radioactive caesium in it. 

Milk, Spinach and Leafy Vegetables

Tests have found levels of radioactive iodine up to 17 to 20 times the legal limit in samples of raw milk, spinach and two leaf vegetables as far away from the damaged nuclear plant as 75 miles or 120 km.  Contamination was also found on canola and chrysanthemum greens in three more prefectures.  While tainted milk was found 20 miles or 30 km from the nuclear plant, spinach was collected from farms up to 75 miles or 120 km south of the plant.  Testing at some locations also found levels of radioactive caesium 4 times the legal limit, the Health Ministry has just reported. 

Half Life: Iodine & Caesium

Iodine and caesium radioactive isotopes are by-products of nuclear reactors like the ones that were damaged in the March 11 earthquake and tsunami and ended up releasing radioactive contamination into the atmosphere. While iodine-131 has a radioactive half-life of eight days, caesium-137’s half-life is about 30 years.  After the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, tons of food had to be destroyed when radioactive debris fell on crops in large areas of Eastern Europe and Scandinavia.

International Dimensions

The Japanese food safety concern is acquiring international dimensions. Taiwan’s Atomic Energy Council said radiation was detected on fava beans imported from Japan, although the radiation was declared to be below the threshold that could harm human health.  It is increasingly likely that food product imported from Japan would test positive for radioactive isotopes in other countries as well.  The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) in Rome and the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Geneva are devising the appropriate methodology to monitor and to control this rising risk of radioactive food contamination.

Bans and Halts

As a precaution, Japan has slapped shipping restrictions on food products produced in two provinces so far:  Fukushima and Ibaraki.  Both prefectures are close to the dysfunctional nuclear power plant.  The Japanese government may decide to widen the freeze on contaminated water and food products in the near future.  The search is being hampered by a shortage of equipment and facilities necessary for accurately measuring radioactivity in food.  What is slowing the process even further is the absence of a central authority that can oversee the far-reaching investigation to decide what steps ought to be taken.

IAEA

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirms radiation in some Japanese milk and vegetables was “significantly higher” than levels normally allowed for consumption.

No Threat

International experts and the Japanese government have said the levels of radioactivity recorded in water, milk and spinach, amongst other food products, do not pose an immediate threat to human health.  It will be difficult to convince Japanese citizens that this is the case.  The danger is that they may shy away from Japanese food products significantly.

Cascading Effects

Farmers and merchants have expressed fears that public anxiety might hurt even those producers of food products and goods that are entirely free of contamination.  If the government outlaws all the produce from specific regions, that may be equivalent to putting the stamp of death on those farmers and merchants.  They may not be able to sell any produce to anybody for some time to come.  Farmers and prefectural governments are now concerned that consumers may start avoiding all domestically grown farm products completely.

Food Export

The Japanese government is taking steps to test food products and monitor exports for radiation contamination.  Thankfully, Japan’s food exports are worth about $3.3 billion a year, which is less than 0.5% of its total exports.  Japan imports far more food than it exports, and even some of the most basic ingredients in Japanese cuisine are primarily imported. In 2009, the total value of the country’s food imports stood at around $53 billion.

Conclusion

As it is, fuel, food and water continue to remain scarce in Japan after the devastating earthquake and tsunami.  Now there is the fear of radioactive contamination.  Given that radiation is invisible, there is something about the fear generated by any level of radioactivity in food products and tap water that no amount of official reassurance is likely to overcome.  This fear and scarcity could exercise real constraints on economic growth for Japan in the future, spark an exodus of talented people and might stoke inflation. 

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