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The Japan Times

Japan: Experts Urge Great Caution Over Radiation Risks

Tomoko Otake

In order to address public concerns over post 3/11 food safety, the government should be more forthcoming in the monitoring and disclosure of data regarding radiation contamination of soil, Akira Sugenoya, mayor of Matsumoto City, Nagano Prefecture, told this reporter recently.

Sugenoya, a medical doctor, speaks from experience, having spent 5½ years from 1996 in the Republic of Belarus treating children with thyroid cancer. He was there because the incidence of that disease in children surged after the Chernobyl disaster in neighboring Ukraine in 1986. In that April 26 event, which involved an explosion and a fire at the nuclear power plant there, large amounts of radioactive substances were released into the atmosphere.

Consequently, due to his unique experience, Sugenoya — who has held his position as mayor since 2004 — was asked by Japan's Food Safety Commission to share his opinion as an expert at a series of meetings convened in late March to set emergency radiation limits for domestic food.

Commenting on these to the JT, Sugenoya said it is his understanding that the current limits set by the commission (see table) are "relatively stringent" by international standards.

However, he added that infants, children up to the age of 14 and pregnant and breastfeeding women should avoid eating food contaminated with even the small doses of radiation. In fact he said that adults should leave safer food for these more at-risk segments of the population even if it means they will eat contaminated food themselves.

Sugenoya also pointed out that what is fueling people's concerns in particular is the slow disclosure of soil contamination data, despite the fact that it is only through such data that it becomes clear where, and even whether, safe vegetables can be grown. Instead, he said, the government has been occupied only with monitoring radiation levels in the air.

"I think some municipal governments have only recently begun to release soil data in response to mounting calls from the public," he said. "But the central government should have taken the initiative to release them much earlier ... . What the central government must do now is release all data, no matter how bad, because if it doesn't it can only add to people's suspicions that it is manipulating information.

"So many people in Japan are now saying that they can't trust their own government."

Adding to such concerns are the views of Richard Broinowski, a former Australian diplomat who is now adjunct professor at the University of Sydney. In response to recent emailed questions from the JT, Broinowski — who is currently writing a book about the Tohoku disasters — said he doubts whether the Japanese authorities have done the most thorough research into the irradiation of food.

Specifically, he said, "What I am anxious to know is: Are qualified Japanese epidemiologists and public health experts (that is, those not in the pay of the nuclear industry) undertaking objective and impartial research into how deeply and to what intensity, radiation dispersal of cesium-137, strontium-90, iodine-131, noble gases and plutonium-239 ... has spread, and how much the general population of the Tohoku region and other regions of Japan have been exposed?"

He added: "I also suspect that full disclosure of such data is not in the interests of the Japanese nuclear industry."

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