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Radioactive milk harmless, but will consumers buy it?

Radioactive milk, detected in two states, contains tiny amounts of radioactive iodine that probably originated in Japan but pose no health threat. So far, milk sales seem steady.

By Mary Helen MillerCorrespondent / April 1, 2011

Milk waiting to be tested sit on shelves in a cooler at the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Air and Radiation Environmental Laboratory in Montgomery, Ala., March 24, 2011. The laboratory has added a few extra contract workers because of the threat from Japan, officials say, including radioactive milk.

Dave Martin / AP


The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the state of California discovered trace amounts of radiation in milk on the West Coast this week, but not nearly enough to cause concern, the agency says – and not enough to impact consumption, say representatives from the milk industry. The level of Iodine-131 that the EPA detected is 5,000 times below the level at which the Food and Drug Administration would intervene.

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So far, there has been no effect on the milk business in California, says the executive director of the Dairy Institute of California, a trade association that represents dairies in the state and elsewhere.

“It's hard to say how people will react, but we are hopeful that they will look to the facts that we believe are available to them,” says Rachel Kaldor of the Dairy Institute.

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A spokesman for Dean Foods, the largest dairy processor and distributor in the country that includes brands like Mayfield, Garelick, and California's Alta Dena, says it's too early to tell if there has been any financial impact to the company since the radiation was detected. But the company has seen an increased volume of calls from concerned consumers. Yesterday, about 100 people called to ask about the radiation.

“It's not an alarming volume of calls," says the spokesman Jamaison Schuler. "As a company we have 40 brands across the country, you’re looking at two, two and a half calls per region.”

Iodine-131, or I-131, was found in milk samples from Spokane, Wash., on March 25, and San Luis Obispo County, Calif., on March 28. While milk can normally contain radiation, the particular I-131 is not usually present. So, its presence in the milk has been linked to the release of I-131 from Fukushima Daichii plant in Japan. The EPA found 0.8 picocuries per liter in the Spokane samples. The California Department of Public Health has not yet released the radiation level it detected, but a spokesman said it was comparable to the amount found in the Spokane samples. That amount of radiation is far, far less than the average person gets from natural radiation from the ground and sky, according to one radiological expert.


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