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World News

March 24, 2011

Japan's fishermen fear spread of radiation scare

KESENNUMA, Japan — Standing on the deck of his 91-foot trawler, veteran fisherman Tomoyuki Kondou winces over reports that radioactivity from Japan's damaged nuclear power plant in nearby Fukushima has contaminated the local food supply following this month's deadly earthquake and tsunami.

The bespectacled third-generation angler has heard the warnings that milk, spinach and other vegetables grown around the plant have been found to contain traces of the radioactive isotopes iodine-131 and cesium-137.

Now Kondou and others in Kesennuma worry that radiation from the seaside nuclear plant might also affect the region's long-bustling fishing industry, which provides tuna, oysters, shark, squid and seaweed to restaurants and supermarkets throughout Japan and around the world.

Japanese officials this week said they have detected higher than normal radiation levels in samples of seawater around the power complex. Kondou is concerned that dangerous isotopes might soon infect the huge schools of tuna he reels onto his trawler, the 31 Kohei Maru.

"I worry the radiation might move up the food chain," says Kondou, 40, who was more than 300 miles from shore searching for fish when the quake struck on March 11. "At first, the smaller fish will become infected and then will get eaten by the bigger fish."

While the alarm is understandable, the science of radiation contamination suggests the health risks are less scary. Dr. Andrew Maidment, associate professor of radiology at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, says radiation will be very heavily diluted in the large expanse of seawater off Japan's northeast coast, though inland fisheries such as shallow water fish farms might face a slightly higher risk of contamination.

"These radioactive materials are highly soluble and are going to dissolve," says Maidment, a consultant to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

But that may not dampen ongoing fears both here and abroad, which can impact on sales with the same force as reality.

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