Vermont shows trace amounts of radioactivity from Japan

Posted March 30, 2011, at 7:10 p.m.
Last modified March 30, 2011, at 9:10 p.m.

MONTPELIER, Vt.  — “Minuscule” amounts of radioactive iodine from Japan’s damaged nuclear plant have turned up in Vermont, but not at levels high enough to pose a public health risk or prompt the need for precautions, the state’s health commissioner said Wednesday.

Air samples taken in Vernon, Brattleboro, Dummerston and Burlington found traces of the radioisotope Iodine-131, while samples taken at six other sites in Vermont still are being analyzed. Samples tested so far showed concentrations ranging from 0.03 to 0.05 picocuries per cubic meter, the state Health Department reported.

The samples were taken beginning March 17, six days after an earthquake and tsunami led to damage at the Fukushima reactors in northeastern Japan.

A product of nuclear fission, Iodine-131 has a short half-life and decays quickly — to half its strength in eight days and almost nothing in 80 days, Health Commissioner Dr. Harry Chen said.

The state’s radiological health chief, Bill Irwin, said he was surprised that the radiation traveled as far and as fast as it did. But given similar measurements in New York, New Hampshire and Maine, some radioactive fallout was to be expected, according to Chen.

Asked about the potential impact on Vermont’s agricultural products, Irwin said it was unknown.

“We don’t know what to expect, frankly,” he said. “We’re somewhat surprised by what we’ve seen so far.  All it means is that we’re going to need to be open to all possibilities and test for all possibilities. We’ll work with the Agency of Agriculture and [the Department of] Natural Resources on incorporating our normal sampling protocol to evaluate for these.”

The state already routinely tests for radiation in milk samples from Windham County — where Vermont Yankee nuclear plant is located — and those tests will be expanded to other parts of the state next week, the results also scrutinized for radioactive contamination, Irwin said.

The most recent tests of milk, from samples taken on two Windham County farms March 15, showed none, Irwin said.

Nor should people be concerned about radioactive snow, he said.

“People can play, people can do everything they normally would without worry of contamination or without worry of ingestion. The levels are very, very low,” Irwin said.

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