4. RADIOACTIVE WASTE AND THE DANGERS OF FOOD IRRADIATION

Despite serious questions concerning effectiveness and consumer safety, the U.S. Department of Energy plans to set-up 1000 food irradiation facilities around the country within the next 10 years. Food irradiation is a process where food is put on a conveyor belt and exposed to radiation from a radioactive source such as cobalt-60 or cesium-137. Since it is a process which can utilize radioactive waste, it is particularly attractive to DOE since it "completes the nuclear fuel cycle" reducing wastes that require disposal to a minimum.

The DOE's planned facilities are of the same type as Radiation Sterilizers in Decatur, Georgia. An accident was discovered there on June 6, 1988, in which a capsule containing deadly radioactive cesium had broken open, contaminating the irradiation chamber, adjacent offices, and 25,000 gallons of water. Ten workers were exposed to the cesium and 70,000 medical supply containers and milk cartons had to be recalled since several milk cartons, waiting to be shipped to Florida, revealed radioactivity. DOE had previously declared the cesium capsules to be fool-proof.

Safety concerns are not limited to irradiation facilities. Research indicates that the evidence of somatic and genetic hazard from consuming irradiated foods is far greater than either the FDA or the proponents of food are willing to admit. Adverse findings indicate that irradiating food:

-- creates conditions that may encourage the mutation of microorganisms or the evolution of radiation-resistant strains; -- dosages kill off bacteria that ordinarily signal spoilage of foods (through foul odor, taste, or texture) and may allow the survival of other dangerous bacteria, giving rise to, for example, the botulin toxin;

-- can stimulate carcinogenic aflatoxin-producing molds;

-- fed to test animals has induced testicular tumors, kidney damage, and chromosomal abnormalities;

-- has shown low survival rates among the offspring of test animals given irradiated feed.

A study in India revealed that when malnourished children were fed freshly irradiated wheat they developed abnormal blood cells. Other studies have shown that fruits and vegetables are easily damaged by irradiation and may rot even faster than non-irradiated produce. Most consumers are not well-informed about food irradiation nor are they aware of the well-documented studies which suggest that it is not safe. Nor do they know that food irradiation facilities will allow DOE to utilize large amounts of radioactive waste in the processing of their food.

About the only thing that can be honestly said about food irradiation is that neither the FDA nor anyone else knows if it is safe but that substantial evidence indicates that foods treated with radiation are damaging to health.

SOURCES:

THE WORKBOOK, April/June 1988, "Food Irradiation: Its Environmental Threat, Its Toxic Connection," by Judith H. Johnsrud, Ph.D., pp 47-58; NORTHERN SUN NEWS, December 1988, "Update on food irradiation," by JoAnne Korkid.