Are Japanese Fish Radioactive?

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A New York Times story about testing seafood for radiation suggests the health risks are minimal—but even low doses of radiation can slowly accumulate

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I'm frequently asked what food has to do with politics.

Food, as my colleagues in Food Studies like to say, is an entry point into the most important social, economic, and political problems facing the world now and in the past.

Today's New York Times story on testing seafood for radioactivity is a case in point. Food may seem remote from energy policy and nuclear power plants, but it is tightly linked to these issues. The Japanese have had to dump radioactive water from their tsunami-damaged power plants into the ocean.

The ocean is large and the radioactivity will be diluted, but fish and shellfish have the potential to concentrate it. That is why high-end restaurants are now testing fish for radioactivity.

Government agencies and experts say that the amount of radioactivity is too low to cause harm:

Patricia A. Hansen, a senior scientist at the F.D.A., acknowledged that the radiation detection methods used to screen food imports were not sensitive enough to detect a single contaminated fish in a large shipment. But she said that small amounts of contamination did not represent a public health hazard...."But the important context is, is that one fish at the intervention level a public health concern? No, it is not."

How credible are such statements?

Nicholas Fisher, a professor of marine sciences at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, said that, according to some radiation safety guidelines, people could safely eat 35 pounds of fish each year containing the level of cesium 137 detected in the Japanese fish.

"You're not going to die from eating it right away," he said, "but we're getting to levels where I would think twice about eating it."

Low-dose radiation accumulates, and the less to which we are exposed, the better.

Food is plenty related to politics, no?


This post also appears on Food Politics.
Image: Sukree Sukplang/Reuters

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Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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