WASHINGTON — High levels of radiation have be found in milk samples in two Western states. Officials say there is a significant public health threat.
Massive amounts of radioactive Iodine-131 were found in milk in California and Washington state, according to federal and state authorities who are monitoring for contamination as the nuclear crisis unfolds in Japan.
The officials say the levels are still 50,000 times above levels of concern.
The Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration said Wednesday that radiation was found in a March 25 milk sample from Spokane, Wash. The California Department of Public Health said on its website that a similar result was found March 28 at a dairy in San Luis Obispo County.
Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power complex began leaking radiation after it was damaged by a devastating earthquake and tsunami earlier this month.
The EPA always monitors radiation levels in the air at several sites throughout the country, but the agency said this week that it is increasing the level of nationwide monitoring of milk, precipitation and drinking water in response to the situation in Japan. Those substances are normally monitored for radiation only a few times a year.
EPA spokesman Brendan Gilfillan said the radiation detected in Spokane is radically and alarmingly different than what is normally found there.
“While there can be naturally occurring levels of radiation in milk – as there are in the air, at levels far below levels of concern – we don’t generally see this particular isotope in such large quantities as part of those background levels,” Gilfillan said.
The EPA has found very low levels of radiation in the air connected to the Japanese incident in Alaska, Alabama, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Nevada, Saipan, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands and Washington state. Gilfillan said the high level of radiation most likely ended up in the milk after a cow ate grass or drank rainwater that contained it.
The California Department of Public Health has an ongoing program that checks milk for radiation levels and occasionally tests vegetables grown near power plants, said Gary Butner, chief of the department’s Radiologic Health Branch.
The FDA, which oversees the safety of the nation’s food supply, said such findings were to be expected in the coming days because of problems with the nuclear plant in Japan, and that the levels were expected to increase in the near future.
“Radiation is all around us in our daily lives and these findings are a minuscule amount compared to what people living right next to a nuclear reactor that has melted down experience every day,” said Mary Hillstrom, senior scientist at the FDA. “A person would be exposed to low levels of radiation on a round-trip cross-country flight, watching television and even from construction materials.”