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Fighting for a safer environment at home, in the community, and at work

Risks of Radiation: Too Many Questions About Food Safety

USA TODAY, January 22, 1992, p. 11A


The nation's first irradiated food, fresh fruit and vegetables, is soon to go on sale at a small Miami supermarket. This food was treated with massive doses of ionizing radiation (100,000 rads, roughly equivalent to 10 million medical X-rays) at large cobalt-60 facility, Vindicator Inc., which plans to treat 800 million tons of food a year for nationwide sale.

Food irradiation was the brainchild of the Atomic Energy Commission's efforts in the Eisenhower administration to find practical uses for the flood of radioactive wastes from nuclear weapons.

Atomic Energy of Canada (Nordion Ltd), with its virtual monopoly on cobalt-60 and with strong backing from the International Atomic Energy Agency, hopes to operate a chain of U.S. plants with U.S. irradiation companies.

Industry and the Food and Drug Administration insist that irradiated food has been thoroughly tested and is absolutely safe. However, New York, New Jersey and Maine have prohibited the sale and distribution of irradiated food, as have foreign governments, including Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Australia and New Zealand. Claims of safety are unproven at best. High-energy irradiation produces complex chemical changes in food with the formation of poorly characterized radio lytic products, including benzene, organic peroxides and carbonyls. Radio lytic products kill bacteria, molds and larvae and thus ensure spoilage-free food, a major attraction to the purveyors of marginal produce and contaminated poultry. However, concentrated extracts of these products have never been tested for cancer and other delayed adverse effects. The overdue need for such studies is further emphasized by numerous reports of chronic toxic effects in insensitive studies on test animal fed unextracted whole irradiated food. These include reproductive damage in rodents and chromosomal damage in rodents, monkeys and children.

Besides food safety, irradiation poses serious occupational and environmental hazards due to the transport and handling of radioactive materials. Accidents have already been reported in facilities sterilizing medical supplies by irradiation. Irradiation also reduces levels of essential nutrients in food, especially vitamins A, C, E and the B complex. Cooking irradiated food reduces these levels still further. The industry reluctantly admits this but suggests that the problem could be taken care of by vitamin supplements!

In spite of this substantial evidence, Food and Drug Administration approved food irradiation in 1986. The FDA based its decision on five questionable or allegedly negative tests and on theoretical estimates on cancer risk, which was claimed to be insignificant and "acceptable". This position is consistent with the administration's revocation of the Delaney law, which banned the deliberate contamination of food with any amount of cancer-causing chemicals, and its substitution by rubber number standards based on "acceptable" cancer risk. Cancer rates have now reached epidemic proportions, striking one in three and killing one in four, with 500,000 deaths last year. Further risks to the entire nation of cancer, besides other health effects, hardly seem justified by the narrow economic interest of a small industry supported by a highly politicized federal bureaucracy.


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