REPORTING FROM SEOUL -– A Japanese baby food manufacturer has announced the recall of 400,000 cans of infant formula that reportedly contain traces of radioactive cesium connected to the nation's recent nuclear plant meltdown.
After panicked parents deluged Tokyo-based Meiji Co. with calls and e-mails, officials of the Tokyo-based food and candy maker responded Wednesday that they do not know how much of the tainted formula had reached consumers, but said the milk was manufactured in March and April and shipped not long afterward.
The incident marked the second time this week that skittish Japanese citizens learned of more radioactive after-effects from the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The facility was struck March 11 by an earthquake-triggered tsunami that knocked out its cooling system and led to several reactor core meltdowns that spewed radiation into the air, water and soil.
On Sunday, plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co., or Tepco, announced that 45 tons of highly radioactive water had leaked from a filtration system at the atomic plant, with some of the water possibly reaching the nearby Pacific Ocean.
Critics say the leak counteracts assurances that Tepco has largely controlled the environmental damage at the coastal plant, located 220 miles northeast of Tokyo. The radiation in the water from Sunday's leak measured up to 322 times higher than government safety limits for various types of cesium.
On Wednesday, plant officials acknowledged that nearly 40 gallons of water from the weekend leak had reached the Pacific Ocean. The water, which was used to cool the reactors, contained not only cesium, but strontium, another dangerous isotope, the utility said.
The facility is not capable of removing strontium, which tends to accumulate in bones and is feared to cause bone cancer and leukemia, Tepco said. However, the impact will be "negligible" even if people continue to eat marine products from the area, the utility said.
Environmentalists reacted suspiciously Wednesday to company assurances that all was in order in the effort to bring the facility into a state of total shutdown known as cold storage.
“Tepco is just looking at this one incident, saying that everything is OK, but we're concerned about the continual leakage of contaminated water that has flowed into the ocean since the disaster took place," said Jan Vande Putte, a Belgium-based radiation-protection expert for Greenpeace. "To talk about one-shot leakage is not a fair representation of the problem."
Experts also worried about the detection of strontium, which they said remains in the body for much longer than cesium and therefore presents a graver health hazard. Some independent sources have estimated that 80 gallons or more of strontium-tainted water have run into the ocean, twice the amount claimed by Tepco, Vande Putte said.
Worse yet, he said, radiation detection devices used by the Japanese government to scan vegetable and seafood products are not capable of isolating strontium.
"It's expensive and difficult to detect strontium," Vande Putte said. "If this stuff gets into the food chain, it would present complications of mammoth proportions."
Although radiation has been detected in a food in Japan, including vegetables and fish, this is the first time that poisonous isotopes have been found in baby formula. Government officials nonetheless downplayed the significance of the findings.
"There is no problem because the levels are within the government limit," Kazuhiko Tsurumi, a Health Ministry official in charge of food safety, said of the radiation found in the formula.
Meiji officials said Wednesday that babies would not suffer ill health effects even if they drank the formula every day, but environmentalists remain wary of the claims.
"This is not a development that buys confidence in the government's claim that everything is fine," said Greg McNevin, a Greenpeace spokesman in Tokyo. "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."
On Wednesday, Greenpeace also released its finding on a recent study of radiation levels in two communities near Fukushima city, located about 40 miles from the stricken nuclear plant.
Workers followed up on an August study of levels of radiation in the towns of Onami and Watari and found that they remain dangerously high.
In Onami, government-hired work teams have decontaminated 30 of 300 houses, including one that Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda visited on a recent tour of the devastated area.
McNevin said that Tokyo has left the prefectural governments to manage the cleanup and that many have hired inexperienced workers to clear away the radiation-contaminated topsoil around many residences. In some cases, Greenpeace said, the soil was dumped in nearby fields or buried on the same property.
"They don't have any short-term, interim or long-term plan on what to do with this infected soil," McNevin said. "Workers are doing the job in a haphazard way."
-- John M. Glionna