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March 16, 2011

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Danger to the food chain

Radioactive materials spewed into the air by Japan's earthquake-crippled nuclear plant may contaminate food and water resources, with children and unborn babies most at risk of possibly developing cancer.

Experts say any exposure to radioactive materials has potential to cause various cancers, and higher radiation levels are more dangerous.

But they say they need more accurate measurements on radioactivity in Japan, and the region, to make a proper risk assessment.

"The explosions could expose the population to longer-term radiation, which can raise cancer risk. These are thyroid cancer, bone cancer and leukemia. Children and fetuses are especially vulnerable," says Lam Ching-wan, chemical pathologist at the University of Hong Kong. "For some individuals, even a small amount of radiation can raise the risk."

Radioactive material is carried by minute moisture droplets in the air. It can then be directly inhaled into the lungs, get washed down by rain into the sea and onto soil and eventually contaminate crops, marine life and drinking water.

Cow milk was also especially vulnerable, experts say, if cows graze on grass exposed to radiation.

Lee Tin-lap, toxicologist and associate professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong's School of Medical Sciences, says Japanese waters must be tested.

"No one is measuring the levels of radiation in the sea," Lee says.

"Steam that is released into the air will eventually get back into the water and sea life will be affected ... once there is rain, drinking water will also be contaminated."

The World Health Organization said yesterday that Japan was taking the correct measures to protect its population, including evacuations and stocking up on potassium iodide, an antidote to radiation.

Radiation is dangerous because it can cause changes or mutations in DNA, which may then go on to cause cancer.

While the body can repair DNA changes or damage, a person is only safe if the repair process happens faster than the time it takes for the damaged or mutated DNA material to replicate.

Growing children and fetuses are most at risk because their cells divide at a faster rate than adults.

They also consume more cow milk than adults, putting them at further risk, said a Japanese scientist who treated victims of the atom bomb explosion in Hiroshima.

"Cows are like vacuum cleaners, picking up radioactive iodine that lands over a wide area of pasture, and then those particles very easily are concentrated and pass into the milk," says the expert, who declined to be identified.

"This was what happened in Chernobyl, and unfortunately, information about the risk had not been supplied to parents."

Rating radiation

The International Nuclear Event Scale (INES) classifies an event occurring at a plant according to its safety significance. The INES is designed by experts named by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Use of INES is monitored by the IAEA. Early provisional ratings are confirmed and later may be reclassified.

Protect yourself from rays

Zhang Qian

Experts suggest that there is no need for local citizens to worry at the time, as no abnormal situation is observed so far in Shanghai, and taking medicine randomly is not helpful at the moment.

If there is a radiation risk, here are tips for protection:

? Close doors and windows and stay indoors.

? Wear a breathing mask when outdoors. Even a simple mask is helpful; a medical breathing mask or respirator mask is better.

? Take an umbrella if it rains, since rain contains radioactive elements.

? Wash clothes and skin with soap and clean water. Washing reduces exposure time.

'Anti-radiation' foods

Some foods are recommended to help prevent risk from small amounts of radiation from computers, microwaves and other appliances. Most contain anti-oxidants (polyphenols, lycopene, beta carotene, vitamins C and A) and have cancer-fighting properties.

? Green tea

? Tomatoes and water melon

? Beans, olive oil, sunflower oil, fresh vegetables and fruits like cabbage, turnips, jujube, orange and kiwi fruit

? Fish oil, animal organs, chicken, egg yolk, broccoli, spinach and carrots

? Sesame sees, malt, milk veteh, yeast, beer, lobster, tuna, garlic, mushrooms

Major accident- Chernobyl accident in Ukraine (1986)


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