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Thursday, Dec. 8, 2011

Cesium-laced baby formula sparks concern, but risk low

Distrust rife despite contamination levels well below government limit


By JUN HONGO and MIZUHO AOKI
Staff writers

Mothers with young children, and the overall dairy industry, were quick in reacting Wednesday to news of cesium-tainted baby formula being sold in markets, even though the reported contamination levels were well below the government-set limit.

News photo
Stepped-up screening: Some cans of Meiji Co.'s Meiji Suteppu (Meiji Step) formula milk have been found to be contaminated with low levels of radioactive cesium. KYODO

Although experts stressed that such levels would not harm the health of babies even if they continued drinking the contaminated dry milk product, Meiji Suteppu (Meiji Step), mothers with young kids weren't ready to breathe a sigh of relief yet — instead expressing a sense of distrust in dairies.

"The amount of cesium may be small but babies drink such products every day, some more than five times each day," Ai Tatsuno, a mother of four — including a 2-year-old — told The Japan Times.

Tatsuno moved from Yokohama to Okinawa in April with her family following the meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. And now — with news of radioactive cesium of up to 30.8 becquerels per kilogram being found in the Meiji Co. baby formula — many questions are surfacing, Tatsuno said, including the level of cleanliness where such products are being made.

"I've been careful in purchasing baby formula manufactured before March 11. Now I might quit and use soy milk and other products for my children," Tatsuno said.

Meiji tested samples from 35 cans recently produced and found four of them to be contaminated with radioactive cesium-134 and -137 totaling between 22 and 30.8 becquerels per kilogram, a level below the government's allowable limit of 200 becquerels per kilogram.

"You don't need to feel stressed even if you gave your children this powdered milk," said Hirokazu Miyoshi, an associate professor of radiation chemistry at the University of Tokushima.

An adult male weighing 60 kg usually contains radioactive potassium-40 of 4,000 becquerels. Based on this figure, a 3-kg baby would always have roughly 200 becquerels of the same radioactive material in its body, Miyoshi said.

"Given that, you can say 30 becquerels per kilogram (in powdered milk) is small" and would pose no harm to a baby, Miyoshi said.

For babies 3 months old or younger, the 30.8 becquerels of cesium would translate to roughly 0.0007018 millisieverts of exposure to radiation.

According to the International Commission on Radiological Protection, exposure to 100 millisieverts increases the cancer mortality risk by about 0.5 percent. This means the risk for babies that ingested the Meiji product is extremely small.

Talks to set a new limit for baby food products are ongoing in the health ministry, since infants and young children are especially vulnerable to effects of internal radiation exposure.

However, despite the limited risks, the news made headlines and fanned parents' fears. Manufacturers vowed to beef up the level of inspection in production lines to ease customers' worries.

Meiji has said there is a high likelihood that the products in question were contaminated when outside air taken in through filters was used to dry the skim milk at the factory inKasukabe, Saitama Prefecture, from March 14-20.

The contamination "is considered a level that does not have an effect on health even if (the product) is used everyday," Meiji said on its website, pledging to conduct checks on their products every day, with updated results online. Production lines will be halted if high levels of contamination within the factory area are found, they said.

Wakodo Co., another major baby formula manufacturer, has posted a statement on its website assuring consumers that necessary tests — including the origins of milk and the level of water contamination — are being conducted to guarantee product safety.

Norio Ishibashi, a spokesman for Japan Dairy Industry Association, said baby formula manufacturers generally use similar processes when making their products. However, he said, the radioactive contamination of Meiji products doesn't automatically mean other formulas may contain such materials as well, since multiple reasons, including geographical factors, could factor into the contamination.

JDIA, which consists of all the country's major dairy products firms, conducted an inspection in July and found that no baby formula products being sold to be contaminated with radioactive isotopes.

"We will consider conducting regular screenings" throughout the industry following the contamination of Meiji's products, he said.



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