- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 22, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) - Radiation-tainted spinach from Japan’s damaged nuclear reactors may sound scary, but here’s a reality check: Even if any made it to stores there, you’d have to be Popeye to eat enough to worry.

With some fallout found in an increasing number of foods, Japan’s government is taking steps to stop contaminated products from reaching consumers _ and the U.S. and other countries are double-checking imports.

The Chernobyl disaster made clear that radiation from food can be a real risk: Thousands of cases of thyroid cancer after the 1986 reactor explosion there are blamed on the Soviet Union’s failure to stop children in the region from drinking milk contaminated with radioactive iodine _ children who also weren’t given a thyroid-protecting drug, potassium iodide.

Japan’s earthquake-damaged reactors haven’t leaked nearly as much radiation as Chernobyl, and aren’t expected to _ and this time around, people are being warned, food is being tested and there’s potassium iodide in the high-risk zone.

Japan has banned sale of milk, spinach and a few other products in regions from the leaking power plant toward Tokyo after discovery of higher-than-allowed levels of radiation in a range of foods. On Monday, the World Health Organization said Japan should act quickly to ensure that no contaminated foods are sold _ as a precaution against long-term risk to nearby residents who otherwise might repeatedly consume large amounts of those products.

Still, international scientists say risk from food in Japan so far is low, especially outside the disaster zone _ and in the U.S. in particular because it imports very little food from Japan.

Besides, there was radiation in food well before Japan’s earthquake and tsunami.

“The world is covered in cesium-137 from the atomic weapons tests of the `50s and `60s,” says nuclear physicist Patrick Regan of the University of Surrey in England.

“There is radioactivity in all food. It’s really a matter of saying how much,” agrees University of New Mexico radiologist Dr. Fred Mettler, who studied the health effects of the Chernobyl disaster. Here are questions and answers about the situation:

Q: What’s the danger?

A: Radioactive iodine, from food or the air, can build up in the thyroid, leading to thyroid cancer years later. Young children and pregnant women are at greatest risk. Thyroid cancer is one of the least fatal cancers if treated promptly.

Radioactive cesium can build up throughout the body, is harder to eliminate and high levels are thought to be a risk for various other cancers.

But it takes quite high exposure to harm, says Mettler: In contaminated villages around Chernobyl, thyroid cancer was documented. But if there was an increase in any other cancer, it was too small to detect, he says.

Q: In what foods in Japan have these radioactive elements been found?

A: Iodine has been found mostly in milk and spinach, but also in chrysanthemum greens, leeks and a few other foods. Cesium also has been found in some vegetables. Levels found so far range from trace amounts to milk with iodine levels five times the acceptable limit, and in spinach, iodine levels 27 times the ceiling. Officials soon will test seafood.

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