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Originally published Wednesday, March 30, 2011 at 7:48 PM

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Radiation likely from Japan found in Spokane milk

Federal regulators have found extremely low levels of Iodine-131 in a sample of milk taken from Spokane — the first time radiation likely from the Japanese nuclear disaster has been found in food in the United States.

Seattle Times environment reporter

Federal regulators have found extremely low levels of Iodine-131 in a sample of milk taken from Spokane — the first time radiation likely from the Japanese nuclear disaster has been found in food in the United States.

But health experts said consumers need not worry.

The sample, taken March 25, remained 5,000 times below levels of concern set by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), even for infants.

In fact, the amount of radiation in the sample was tens of thousands of times lower than what one might be exposed to during a round-trip cross-country flight, said Patricia Hansen, a senior scientist with the FDA.

In addition, Iodine 131 also has a short half-life — about eight days — so health officials expect radiation levels to drop off quickly.

"The amount we're talking about is minuscule," said Mary Selecky, secretary of the Washington Department of Health.

Selecky said that radiation showed up in samples from a bulk-milk station in Spokane before anywhere else is probably just chance; the Spokane sample was the first to be tested at an EPA laboratory, she said.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has increased its regular monitoring of radiation in rainwater and milk in expectation that minute amounts of radiation traveling through the atmosphere will make its way to the United States.

The agency is monitoring milk, in particular, because it's one of the most common ways humans can be exposed to Iodine-131, which will fall in rain and gets deposited in soil and readily attaches to leafy vegetation. That vegetation then is eaten by cows.

In far higher doses, Iodine-131 can be a culprit in thyroid cancers and associated diseases.

It is the same substance secretly released in massive quantities by the Hanford nuclear reservation in 1949's notorious "Green Run." The impact of that release and others are at the heart of suits still being waged by a generation of people who lived downwind of Hanford who are or have been afflicted with various thyroid disorders.

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com

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