MSNBC.com - Japan confirmed the presence of radioactive iodine contamination in food products from near a crippled nuclear plant and ordered a halt to their sale, the U.N. nuclear body said on Saturday.
"Though radioactive iodine has a short half-life of about 8 days and decays naturally within a matter of weeks, there is a short-term risk to human health if radioactive iodine in food is absorbed into the human body," the International Atomic Energy Agency said in a statement.
Earlier Japanese officials said radiation levels in spinach and milk from farms the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex exceeded government safety limits.
The food was taken from farms as far as 65 miles from the stricken plants, suggesting a wide area of nuclear contamination.
While the radiation levels exceeded the limits allowed by the government, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano insisted the products "pose no immediate health risk."
The tainted milk was found 20 miles from the plant, a local official said.
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The spinach was collected from six farms between 60 miles and 75 miles to the south of the reactors.
Those areas are rich farm country known for melons, rice and peaches, so the contamination could affect food supplies for large parts of Japan.
More testing was being done on other foods, Edano said in Tokyo, and if tests show further contamination then food shipments from the area would be halted.
Officials said it was too early to know if the nuclear crisis caused the contamination, but Edano said air sampling done near the dairy showed higher radiation levels.
Cesium 137 found
Iodine levels in the spinach exceeded safety limits by three to seven times, a food safety official said.
Tests on the milk done Wednesday detected small amounts of iodine 131 and cesium 137, the latter being a longer lasting element and can cause more types of cancer.
But only iodine was detected Thursday and Friday, a Health Ministry official said.
Officials from Edano on down tried to calm public jitters, saying the amounts detected were so small that people would have to consume unimaginable amounts to endanger their health.
Edano said someone drinking the tainted milk for one year would consume as much radiation as in a CT scan; for the spinach, it would be one-fifth of a CT scan. A CT scan is a compressed series of X-rays used for medical tests.
"Can you imagine eating one kilogram of spinach every day for one year?" State Secretary of Health Minister Yoko Komiyama said. One kilogram is a little over two pounds.
Meanwhile, just outside the bustling disaster response center in the city of Fukushima, 40 miles northwest of the plant, government nuclear specialist Kazuya Konno was able to take only a three-minute break for his first meeting since the quake with his wife, Junko, and their children.
"It's very nerve-racking. We really don't know what is going to become of our city," said Junko Konno, 35. "Like most other people, we have been staying indoors unless we have to go out."
She brought her husband a small backpack with a change of clothes and snacks. The girls — aged 4 and 6 and wearing pink surgical masks decorated with Mickey Mouse — gave their father hugs.
Low levels of radiation have been detected well beyond Tokyo, which is 140 miles south of the plant, but hazardous levels have been limited to the plant itself.