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WHO Concerned About Radiation Levels In Food Near Damaged Japanese Nuclear Plant

A WHO spokesperson “said on Monday that the detection of radiation in food after an earthquake damaged a Japanese nuclear plant was a more serious problem than [the agency] had first expected,” Reuters reports.

“Quite clearly it’s a serious situation,” Peter Cordingley, a spokesman for WHO’s regional office for the Western Pacific, said, adding, “It’s a lot more serious than anybody thought in the early days when we thought that this kind of problem can be limited to 20 to 30 kilometers” (Wee, 3/21). Cows and spinach from up to 120 kilometers away gave reportedly been affected, Cordingley said, CNN reports.

“Japan’s health ministry requested Friday that sales of raw milk from Fukushima Prefecture [near the damaged nuclear reactors] and spinach from neighboring Ibaraki Prefecture be banned due to detected levels of radioactive iodine and cesium that surpassed government limits, with that prohibition becoming public Sunday. That same day, officials in Fukushima halted the distribution of locally grown vegetables outside the prefecture,” according to CNN (3/21).

“Cordingley said the WHO’s experts at its Geneva headquarters were trying to better understand the situation and would be able to give more guidance later on Monday,” Reuters notes (3/21).

Takayuki Matsuda, a spokesperson for Japan’s Health Ministry, said residents of a village near the damaged nuclear plant have been advised to refrain from drinking the tap water due to elevated levels of radioactive iodine, the Associated Press reports. Matsuda “said Sunday that radioactive iodine three times the normal level was detected in Iitate, a village of about 6,000 people 30 kilometers (19 miles) northwest of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant. That’s still one twenty-sixth of the level of a chest X-ray and poses no danger to humans, he said” (3/20).

Meanwhile, the WHO also has warned against the indiscriminate use of potassium iodide as a precaution against nuclear radiation, VOA News reports. Potassium iodide should only be taken when a clear public health recommendation has been issued, said Gregory Hartl, a WHO spokesman. “Indiscriminate use of the product can cause side effects such as inflammation of the salivary glands, nausea, rashes, intestinal upset and possible severe allergic reactions,” Hartl said, adding, “It can also interact with other medications, especially certain types of cardiovascular medications such as ACE inhibitors, receptor blockers and potassium-sparing diuretics” (Schlein, 3/18). Last week, Japanese authorities recommended that people leaving the area near the damaged nuclear power plant should ingest iodine to protect against thyroid cancer, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said on Saturday, according to a second Reuters article (Dahl, 3/19). 

In related news, a Reuters special report looks at fears about radiation that have been sparked by the damaged nuclear plant. “Sixty-six years after the first atomic bomb exploded over the city of Hiroshima, radiation spooks people everywhere. But the anxiety is largely disproportionate to the actual danger. ‘People in general have an exaggerated fear of radiation. That is true in the United States, and it is probably even more so in Japan,’ said Jerrold Bushberg, director of health physics programs and clinical professor of radiology and radiation oncology at the University of California Davis,” according to the article, which quotes several other experts (Steenhuysen, 3/18).

News Outlets Report On Global Aid Delivery Efforts

Several countries have pledged aid to help with relief efforts after the earthquake and tsunami, but “little of it can be seen in towns and villages devastated by the disaster,” Reuters reports (Herskovitz/Fujioka, 3/20).

According to the Wall Street Journal, the “series of disasters” that has befallen Japan since March 11 has complicated the U.S. military aid effort, as cooperation with Japan’s government, inclement weather and a radiation fears have “complicated” the humanitarian mission. While the U.S. effort in Japan – “using the many American troops already based in Japan [–] has delivered tons of aid and equipment to those hardest hit by the destructive forces of nature in Japan, the magnitude-9.0 earthquake, ensuing tsunami and especially the unfolding nuclear-power crisis have weighed on the U.S. armed forces relief mission,” the newspaper writes (Dawson, 3/21).

However, the Wall Street Journal in a second article reports that “there are small signs that the government, aid organizations and even private individuals are beginning to push back the tide of destruction, at least in some areas” (Bellman/Sekiguchi, 3/21).

AlertNet highlights how aid groups are helping with the delivery of aid. “By and large Japan, as one of the most developed countries, has the capacity to respond” to the situation and “it has only accepted international support in a few specific areas, such as search-and-rescue teams, medical help and nuclear specialists,” the news service notes, before noting the activities of several groups, including Medecins Sans Frontieres and World Vision (Batham, 3/18).

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) on Friday sent a letter to major cell phone carriers calling on them to speed the delivery of subscribers’ texted donations to aid organizations, the National Journal reports. “In light of the scale of destruction in Japan, American wireless carriers should again immediately remit mobile donations to organizations conducting relief efforts on the ground” as they have for past humanitarian crises, Boxer said (Fox, 3/18).  

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Filling the need for trusted information on national health issues, the Kaiser Family Foundation is a nonprofit organization based in Menlo Park, California.