Radiation and Strontium Found in Japan's Baby Formula

By Danelle Frisbie

An artificial baby food manufacturer in Japan that makes up the sales of 40% of Japan's formula market has announced the recall of 400,000 cans of its formula containing traces of radioactive cesium 134 and 137 due to the nation’s recent nuclear plant meltdown. The same company exports formula to Vietnam under a different label.

Parents have flooded the Tokyo based Meiji Company with calls and emails, concerned about the impact it will have on their babies. Meiji said Wednesday that they do not know how much of the tainted formula has actually reached the mouths of little ones - the milk was manufactured in March and April and shipped soon after.

The formula contains approximately 31 becquerels (measurement of radioactive intensity) of cesium per kilogram, which is below the allowable limit of 200 becquerels per kilogram set by the Japanese government.

On March 11th of this year, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was struck by an earthquake-triggered tsunami that damaged its cooling system and led to several nuclear reactor core meltdowns, spewing radiation into the air, water and soil of the surrounding landscape. Approximately 45 tons of radioactive water leaked from the filtration system at the atomic plant, and it was estimated that some of this water reached the Pacific Ocean not far from the plant.

Plant officials confirmed Wednesday that 150 liters of this water had indeed reached the ocean, yet other independent researchers estimated over 300 liters had actually run into the nearby Pacific. This poisonous water contained not only cesium, but also strontium - another toxic isotope. Strontium, unable to be cleaned from the water, is a carcinogen that accumulates in the bones of humans and animals and is believed to lead to bone cancers and leukemia.

Some experts have said the impact on human health will be negligible - others are suspicious that the clean up and control which is said to be taking place is not actually being followed through with. Parents are also concerned specifically with the strontium, which is believed to stay in the body much longer than cesium and as a result, presents a more vital health hazard, especially to babies who have been exposed during their newborn stage of rapid cell growth and development.

Radiation detection devices used in Japan to monitor radiation in vegetables and seafood are unable to identify strontium. “It’s expensive and difficult to detect strontium,” said Vande Putte, a radiation protection expert for Greenpeace. “If this stuff gets into the food chain, it would present complications of mammoth proportions.”

Radiation has been detected in a large amount of foods and drinks in Japan, including vegetables and fish, but this is the first time the poisonous matter has been found in artificial baby foods.

Despite the heavy concern on the part of formula feeding parents, who are not only using the formula, but also mixing it with local water, the Japanese government has downplayed the findings, saying that because contamination is within government set limits, there is nothing to worry about. It is unlikely, however, that government limits have been tested on the smallest of human newborns.

Greg McNevin, a Greenpeace spokesman in Tokyo, commented on Japan's reaction, “Even if the radiation levels in the formula are low, children are more at risk than are adults of getting cancer and other illnesses from radiation exposure. Any exposure to radiation is a risk, especially for infants. This isn’t something newborns should be faced with. For them, the risk should be zero.”


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