Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Radioactive Spinach and Biomagnification

Given recent events, Japan observers might be excused for overlooking important news from March 22. A decades long battle between Chisso Corporation and three groups of Minamata disease victims in Kumamoto and Kagoshima reached an agreement in a class action suit. 2492 people in three groups agreed not to file further damages or apply for official recognition as mercury-poisoned victims of Chisso Corp’s dumping of methyl mercury in the water in exchange for lump sum payments. The disease was first recognized in 1956 and half a century later victims have little time left to fight for the official recognition they deserve. The mercury that poisoned their bodies was carried through fish they ate. The toxins accumulated up the trophic tiers in a process called biomagnification through which a persistent poison concentrates as it moves up the food chain. Organisms at the top get the most poison, and consequently, in Minamata thousands were left with nerve damage.

Meanwhile toxins meander through the veins of a common food source in Japan—spinach. But not just spinach. On March 23rd, the government restricted the consumption of various greens from Fukushima prefecture including kakina, broccoli, cabbage, komatsuna, kukitachina, santona, parsley, shinobu fuyuna, kosaitai, cauliflower, chijirena, aburana, and others. Today Fukushima prefecture is also limited from distributing the same greens and turnips. Ibaragi prefecture may not ship spinach, kakina, or parsley. Tochigi and Gunma prefectures may not ship spinach or kakina. Gunma, Fukushima, Ibaragi and Tochigi prefectures supplied 60 percent of the greens to Tokyo in 2010.

Greens are more susceptible to radiation absorption than other fruits and vegetables and have been found to exceed normal radiation limits since the radiation leaks at the six-reactor Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, though the data varies according to source.

While Chief Cabinet Secretary Edano determines that “there is no immediate harm from temporary consumption,” he also says the long term effects are not clear. Therefore, consumers are asked to limit consumption of these greens and farmers are blocked from selling their vegetables. One farmer who has just seeded a new crop a week prior to the reactor accidents stands to lose 2,000,000 yen on his crops. One farmer of kakina had just missed harvesting by a mere day or two and has consequently lost an entire crop. At distribution centers, greens from Fukushima and Ibaragi are marked with signs saying “return produce.” Shop owners in Tokyo complain that consumers now won’t even buy vegetables from prefectures lying outside the no-distribution zones.

Milk: Fukushima and Ibaragi prefectures are also asked to halt milk shipments.

One farmer draining milk from his cows to the drain lamented that he must “throw away milk like garbage.”

Toxins are stored in fatty tissue of bodies and the biomagnification of toxins up trophic tiers means that milk brings with it a greater accumulation of toxins in our bodies, just as fish did for human Minamata denizens. It should be pointed out, however, that toxic substances can concentrate in higher levels in water than on land because food chains are longer (Sandra Steingraber, Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood). This is why Minamata fishing communities suffered the effects of mercury poisoning so radically. It makes it doubly important to watch radiation levels in the ocean off of the coast of the nuclear reactors in Fukushima.

What is a food chain anyway? Who is at the top? We usually think of a “man” at the top of a food chain but Sandra Steingraber illustrates that it is not “man” but a fetus that stands to be most harmed by toxins and following the fetus is a breastfeeding infant. Placenta can magnify levels of toxins. And about the breastfeeding child and biomagnification Steingraber writes “After the tuna sandwiches and glasses of cow’s milk are all consumed, there still remains one more chance for the contaminants they carry to magnify, and that takes place inside the breasts of nursing mothers” who add a trophic tier to the human food chain. Increased toxins from veggies and milk are potentially harmful for mothers breastfeeding since they transfer toxins to infants through the milk that contains chemicals trapped inside milk fat globules, at least 60% of which are from long-lived fat-soluble contaminants from a lifetime burden of contaminants in the female body. These are even transferred to her through the milk of her own mother (Steingraber).

One woman interviewed in Tokyo says she can handle the radioactivity in water and milk but worries about her infant. The fact is that the mother will pass on toxins to her breast-feeding infant in inestimable quantity. And the sadder truth is that nuclear accident-produced contamination may be the least toxic contaminant in the mother’s body. The persistent toxic organic pollutants in human breast milk makes it the most contaminated of all human foods. One reseacher writes in 1996 that “Breast milk, if regulated like infant formula, would commonly violate FDA action levels for poisonous or deleterious substances in food and could not be sold.” Steingraber writes, On average, in industrialized countried, breastfed infants ingest each day fifty times more PCBs per pound of body weight than do their parents. We have DDT, PCBs, flame retardants, fungicides, wood preservatives, termite poisons, toilet deodorizers, cable-insulating materials, gasoline vapors, dry-cleaning fluids, chemical pollutants of garbage incinerations, and other contaminants in breast milk.

With the recent finding of radioactivity in the water supply in Tokyo, we have added yet another contaminant to the water supply. So while Edano says that levels of radioactivity do not pose an immediate threat to health or when researcher Matsumoto Yoshihisa who is a radiation science and molecular biologists says he, his children, and his family will gobble up Fukushima vegetables and milk, one wonders if a breastfeeding mother understanding the process of biomagnification would. Emeritus professor of Waseda University, Professor Ootsuki Yoshihiko, also known as a television “talent,” says “Send me the stopped shipments [of spinach and milk] and I’ll gladly eat them.” Prof. Ootsuki ends his blog on March 21st with the statement “Cars are not safe but necessary. In the same way, nuclear power is not safe but necessary.” I end my blog here asking, “Should we be so sure?”

We’re all in this together.