With more and more people worried about possible radioactive contamination in the food they eat, some enterprising businesses are profiting from providing a little peace of mind.
Since the crisis at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, the use of so-called public measuring stations is spreading as consumers conduct their own radiation inspections on food products, rather than relying on those performed by local governments and distributors.
"My friend who goes fishing is worried, so I said I'd come and check for him," said an elderly man, after taking a reading of radioactive cesium in some octopus at a testing shop in Chiba.
The clerk nods and says, "Yeah, that's something to worry about."
The store, located in downtown Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture, is called Bekumiru. It opened last October as a place where customers can measure food products and other items for radioactive substances. A simple measuring instrument sits at each of the seven booths inside.
Customers bring over what they want to measure and place the items on the instruments. The cost of measuring each item ranges from 980 yen up to 3,980 yen for a more precise reading.
A 55-year-old man who runs a rice store in the prefecture brought in some locally harvested rice, along with apples and mandarin oranges, from his home garden.
"I want to be responsible and check whether I can sell them and give them to other people," he said.
Radiation in the rice came up as "undetected" while a little was found in the fruits, though at an extremely low level.
According to the president of Bekumiru, Motohiro Takamatsu, 47, many of the customers who use the radiation detectors are seniors wanting to know whether they can give their grandchildren fruits and vegetables from their home gardens. The next largest group is mothers and young couples with children. Farmers are particularly feeling a sense of urgency. They come to use the detectors, worried that they will have to shut down their farms if they get a high reading. Mindful of their concerns, the store has covered the screens displaying the values so that only the person using a machine can see the readings.
In some cases, people worried about the effects of radioactive substances have gotten together to buy measuring instruments, while some private companies are taking readings as part of their business.
So far, public measuring stations have been set up in cities such as Fukushima, Yokohama, Shizuoka and Tokyo's Kokubunji, with preparations to open elsewhere under way. Some of the stations solicit expert advice from researchers.
The National Public Measuring Station Network was created with the idea of loosely connecting these measuring stations. Hidetake Ishimaru, 39, who also works with the National Network of Parents to Protect Children from Radiation, administers the mailing list. So far, around 30 organizations from Hokkaido to Fukuoka have signed up, including those that will soon begin running their own public measuring stations.
The list is used to exchange information, such as questions on how to handle measuring equipment and concerns about running the stations. Eventually, they hope to share data on readings taken at all measuring stations.
"A single measuring station can only take readings on a limited number of items," says Ishimaru. "With all the different kinds of food out there, I'd like to see measuring stations everywhere."
In the beginning, Bekumiru had an issue regarding how to guarantee accurate readings. A problem arose with radioactive potassium that occurs naturally in some food products, not related to the nuclear accident. The machine readings would mistake this for cesium from the nuclear power plant.
Ryugo Hayano, professor of nuclear physics at the University of Tokyo and an advocate for inspecting school lunches, visited Bekumiru and helped fix the problem by adjusting the settings so that they would negate the effect of potassium and take accurate measurements.
Hayano sees a need for citizen awareness regarding radiation readings. He points out that "local governments do not perform comprehensive inspections.”
“They focus more on beef and rice, so there might be contaminated food products going undetected,” he said. “Meanwhile, most produce from home gardens that growers do not distribute is not inspected, so they may contain many radioactive substances. Independent measurements are very important to avoid these risks.
"(Public measuring stations) will teach people how to take readings themselves and how (to detect) contaminated food, and this will also getting them thinking about internal radiation exposure."
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