The Japanese health ministry announced on Saturday that elevated levels of radiation were detected in milk from a farm about 18 miles from the country’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Spinach grown about 90 miles away was also found to have abnormal amounts of the material, called iodine-131.

Spinach and milk from near Fukushima power plant was found with elevated levels of iodine-131.(Photo credit: Associated Press)

The power plant was badly damaged from the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami that hit Northeast Japan on March 11th, and it has been leaking radioactive material as emergency crews try to prevent large-scale nuclear disaster. Tiny amounts of radiation have also been found in tap water in Maebashi, 62 miles north of Tokyo.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that the sale of all food products from Fukushima prefecture had been halted for further testing. But although the amounts of iodine-131 detected in the milk and spinach were beyond the limits set by Japanese law, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Monday that the products were safe for consumption. “It should be stressed that short-term exposure to levels of radiation seen with the contaminated spinach will pose no short-term health risk,” said WHO spokesman Peter Cordingley. “The same with the milk, it doesn’t pose a health risk.” Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano claimed that if a person drank the contaminated milk every day for a year, total radiation exposure would be roughly equivalent to a single CT scan, and that a year’s consumption of the spinach in question would equal the radioactivity of one-fifth of a CT scan.

But even just the perception of contamination threatens to worsen the economic impact of the disaster to Japan’s already declining farming industry. “This will be a huge blow to dairy farms all over Fukushima,” said Yukimitsu Sato, a spokesman for a Fukushima dairy farm cooperative. Japan imports nearly 18 times more food than it exports, and if fears of contamination continue the country may become even more dependent on imports. The Tokyo Electric Power Company—in charge of the damaged nuclear plant—said that it was prepared to compensate farmers for their losses at a news conference Saturday.

Matt Styslinger is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet Project.

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