People in Tokyo are rushing to buy up bottled water, after being briefly warned that tap water might be unsafe for children. This could hamper earthquake relief efforts in areas where water pipelines have been damaged.
The government said small children should not drink tap water
Shops across Tokyo were reporting low supplies of bottled water on Thursday, as people started stockpiling for fear of a contaminated tap water supply.
Officials in Japan said on Wednesday that the radioactive iodine-131 content of tap water had reached unsafe levels for babies as a result of the problems at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. The government has since said that the iodine levels had gone down again, but the effect of the warning on consumer habits has seemingly endured.
"I don't know how to deal with this," Kazuko Hara, a mother with a three-month-old daughter, told the AFP news agency. "When television started reporting the news about water, they had no analysis from experts."
Hara said that she was breast-feeding her daughter, which led her to wonder whether she should change her own consumption habits too.
"My family is very worried. My husband and my mother-in-law have told me to drink bottled water and avoid tap water. So I am trying to do that to the extent I can."
The run on bottled water in the shops could start to hurt relief efforts elsewhere in the country. More than a quarter of a million people are still living in emergency shelters as a result of the damage caused by the magnitude-9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Many of the worst-affected areas are still battling to rebuild crucial infrastructure, often including water pipelines. Bottled water, therefore, is crucial to the humanitarian aid work.
Two workers hospitalized
At the Fukushima plant itself, Japan's nuclear safety commission said on Thursday that three workers had been exposed to radiation.
The Fukushima plant was badly damaged in the March 11 quake
"Two were sent to hospital after they found themselves in a puddle of water," a spokesman for Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) said. "Although they wore protective clothing, the contaminated water seeped in and their legs were exposed to radiation."
The two worst-affected were exposed to between 170 and 180 millisieverts as they worked to lay basement cables at Fukushima's third reactor. This radiation dose is well short of the roughly 4,500 millisieverts that can be lethal if given at once to the entire body without subsequent treatment.
The Tokyo Electric Power Co has been scrambling for nearly a fortnight to contain the damage sustained by the plant during the quake and the subsequent tsunami and to prevent a more severe radiation leak or even a nuclear meltdown.
Marginal radiation detected in Europe
Meanwhile, the first traces of radiation emanating from Japan have reached Iceland and parts of North America. Germany's Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS) confirmed on Thursday that the Japanese traces would soon reach mainland Europe.
BfS employee Anja Schulte Lutz also said, however, that the levels of extra radiation will be infinitesimal.
"They will be lower than the naturally-occurring levels of background radiation in Germany," she said. "There is no reason to fear any threats to public health."
The annual dose of background radiation for a German resident is roughly 2.1 millisieverts, although it varies regionally and from year to year.
Author: Mark Hallam (AFP, Reuters)
Editor: Michael Lawton