Some still concerned about radiation in food
Published 4:41 pm, Tuesday, May 31, 2011
The Shining Rainbow has long lured sushi lovers to downtown Albany, N.Y., with dishes like the spicy salmon roll and maki combo.
But on April 1, two weeks after a 9.0 magnitude earthquake triggered a disaster at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the popular Chinese-Japanese restaurant slapped this announcement on its menu: "Because (of) the RADIATION in JAPAN, for our quality (customers), we will stop serving Japanese food until we can get FRESH sources of food from Japan. Sorry for the inconvenience."
"We are worried about the people," Justin Chi, manager at Shining Rainbow, said of the series of accidents that released radiation into the atmosphere over Japan in March. "Some of our fish came from there, so we worry about it. We might still serve it in the future, but not now."
The decision on the part of Shining Rainbow, and other restaurants across the Northeast, not to serve food from Japan reflects persistent worries over the threat of radiation to America's food supplies from the Fukushima fallout.
The catastrophe has put the spotlight on nuclear power plants here in the United States, as some anti-nuclear groups have stepped up concerns over contamination from domestic reactors (the Northeast is home to Millstone, Indian Point and other nuclear power plants). The controversy has left many people wondering: Is our food safe to eat?
"Consumers feel as if there is something they should avoid," said Nicholas Dainiak, chairman of the department of medicine at Bridgeport Hospital, who has spent decades researching the effects of radiation on humans and the environment. "It's all a myth. It's make-believe."
Dainiak noted that while a 12-mile zone around Fukushima had been contaminated -- elevated levels of radiation in milk and spinach prompted Japanese officials to warn against consuming these products back in March -- the amount of radiation released into the U.S. food supply is negligible.
Even if some radiation has been detected in fish or produce in this country, "the dose is so small as to be inconsequential," he said, adding that levels of radiation, which most commonly include the radioisoptes idodine-131 and caesium-137, would have to be "thousands of times higher" to warrant serious concern.
Dainiak's appeals for calm have been echoed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, which claim that levels of radiation are well within permissible levels.
"We felt that anything that needs to be done in response to Fukushima, we've been doing it," said Edward Wilds, director of radiation monitoring for the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, adding that the state DEP completed extensive testing in the wake of Fukushima to ensure the safety of the region.
Despite repeated assurances from officials, fears have lingered. Public perception, rather than claims by federal agencies, is why restaurants like the Shining Rainbow have removed Japanese seafood from their menus.
"Even if they say the fish is safe, we don't want to serve it," Chi said.
Panic grew to such a feverish pitch that in March, the FDA halted all milk, fruit and vegetable products imported from several regions in Japan from entering the United States -- not because it believed the foods posed any serious risk, but to help keep hysteria at bay.
For many anti-nuclear groups, the concerns are more than justified. "If we are not testing our food for radioactive isotopes, we're taking the chance of eating something that's contaminated," said Remy Chevalier, director of Rock the Reactors, an anti-nuclear organization dedicated to the shut down of the Indian Point nuclear power plant in Buchanan, N.Y.
Chevalier, who has spent 30 years working at a community organic garden near his home in Weston, said farmers in the Northeast are rightfully worried that radiation from Fukushima could harm their crops. Iodine-131 have already been detected in milk in California, Washington, New Hampshire and Vermont, and the quantities are rising, Chevalier said.
Some scientists, however, dispute these warnings.
"It's all about dose," said Dainiak, adding that even in the exclusion zone around Fukushima, the levels of the radioisotope are "well within acceptable limits." Moreover, iodine-131 has a relatively short half life, meaning that any amount that turns up in the American food supply will dissipate quickly, he added.
However, public concern isn't limited to Fukushima. A report published by Hearst Connecticut Media Group in March revealed that domestic power plant operators are stuffing more and more spent nuclear fuel rods into already crowded storage pools -- a practice that could spell disaster were a natural disaster, terrorist attack or major mechanical failure to occur.
In addition, some health experts contend that "permissible levels" of radiation set forth by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission are based on weak assumptions on the impact of radioactive material on the country's food supply. "A meltdown scenario is the most serious, but you don't have to have a meltdown to impact people, or the food being grown, near a nuclear reactor," said Joseph Mangano, executive director of the New York-based Radiation and Public Health Project. "That's because every single day, reactors emit a small portion of radiation into the air and water."
The health hazards of consuming food and water contaminated by radiation varies, depending on the degree of exposure. According to the EPA, symptoms can range from nausea and vomiting to cancer and failure of the central nervous system.
But as some physicians and state officials contend, it's unlikely to come to that. Not only is the amount of radiation in our food miniscule, but nuclear reactors are designed with several layers of containment that greatly minimizes the risk of a meltdown, even in the event of a natural disaster, they said.
"You can eat anything grown in Connecticut," Dainiak said. "You could even eat all the food you want in Japan, as long as its not in the exclusion zone. I would eat vegetables in Japan. I wouldn't be worried about fish either."
Wilds offered this pledge to skeptics of government assertions: "My family lives in Connecticut. I wouldn't do anything to jeopardize them. Our records are open. Anyone can come and view them."
Despite those assurances, Chi isn't planning on serving sushi at Shining Rainbow any time in the near future. And it's unlikely, he said, that consumers will order it anyway.
Said Chi: "The way people react to what happened, I don't think we'll have sushi back for some months."