WHO: Real risk if radiation contaminates food

A man looks at a package of spinach from Chiba Prefecture on sale at a market, March 20, 2011, in Tokyo. AP Photo/Gregory Bull

GENEVA - Japan needs to act quickly and ban food sales from areas around the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant if food there has excessive levels of radiation, the World Health Organization said Monday.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has confirmed that radiation in some Japanese milk and vegetables was "significantly higher" than levels Japan allows for consumption, and Japanese authorities are expected to decide by Tuesday on a comprehensive plan to limit food shipments from affected areas.

A spokesman for the Geneva-based U.N. health agency said contaminated food poses a greater long-term risk to residents' health than radioactive particles in the air, which disperse within days. It was the strongest statement yet from the world body on radiation risks to ordinary people, not nuclear workers.

Complete coverage: Disaster in Japan

"They're going to have to take some decisions quickly in Japan to shut down and stop food being used completely from zones which they feel might be affected," Gregory Hartl told The Associated Press . "Repeated consumption of certain products is going to intensify risks, as opposed to radiation in the air that happens once and then the first time it rains there's no longer radiation in the air."

The government has already stopped shipments of milk from one area and spinach from another, and said it found contamination on two more vegetables -- canola and chrysanthemum greens -- and in three more prefectures. On Sunday, the Health Ministry also advised a village in Fukushima prefecture not to drink tap water because it contained radioactive iodine. It stressed, however, that the amounts posed no health threat.

Fears that Japanese produce could be dangerously radioactive have already prompted authorities in neighboring China to order tests of food imports from Japan, the Xinhua News Agency reported Monday. Food from Japan makes up a tiny fraction of China's imports, but jitters over possible radiation from the tsunami-hit Fukushima nuclear plant have sparked a run on iodized salt in China in the mistaken belief that it protects against radiation contamination.

Hartl said actual health risks depend on the type of food and soil affected, the amount of radiation found, and the amount consumed. But delays that allow heavily contaminated food to reach consumers could pose a serious danger, especially to children, he said.

Scientists believe that the Soviet failure to stop children around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant from drinking milk after the 1986 reactor explosion there led to thousands of cases of thyroid cancer.

Hartl said WHO doesn't have any radiation experts of its own in Japan now and any policy decision must be taken by the Japanese government. But he said the situation was being monitored closely because the risks to human health shift depending on developments.

"A week ago we were more concerned about purely the radiation leakages and possible explosion of the nuclear facility itself, but now other issues are getting more attention including the food safety issue," he said.

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