Is Tea From Japan Radioactive? The Fukushima Nuclear Disaster and Japan’s Tea Industry

Following the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, the Japanese government assured us that the agricultural industry had not been negatively affected. As the months passed and one product after another was deemed unsafe for human consumption and taken off the market, fears began to spread concerning other products from Japan.

Pretty soon, elevated levels of Cesium were being detected in samples of tea from a number of prefectures surrounding Fukushima. As a result, the government ordered a halt in tea shipments from the prefectures of Ibaraki, Chiba, Kanagawa and Tochigi, which are all located in the East of the country.

None of those prefectures are major tea producers and so far Shizuoka, which produces 40% Japan’s tea output and is located over 300km from the disaster area, had not been affected. That changed in June of 2011, when elevated levels of Cesium were found in tea leaves in Shizuoka. Additionally, a shipment of tea leaves containing double the accepted level of Cesium was intercepted in Paris.

What effect does this have on tea drinkers?

Most of Japan’s tea is grown far to the west of the disaster area. Shizuoka is the closest major tea producing region and it is also the only one affected by radiation. Most of the teas tested from Shizuoka showed trace amounts of radiation, but did not exceed the safety standards set by the government. A few have been found to contain radiation in excess of the standards, but only in the dry leaves. Once steeped, the radiation levels are far below the safety limits imposed by the government.

Furthermore, the radiation limits imposed by the Japanese government are much more stringent than those of most other organizations at 500 Becquerels (Bq) per kilogram, which is the same limit adopted by the European Union in 2011. The WHO has a limit of 1000 Bq/kg, while the limit set by the government of the United States is 1200 Bq/kg.

If you steep your tea leaves and don’t consume them directly, you can safely drink tea from Shizuoka prefecture. If you want to be extra careful, stick to tea from Japan’s other major tea growing regions: the Uji region and the Yame, Kumamoto, Miyazaki and Kagoshima prefectures are all located far to the west of Fukushima and have shown no races of contamination whatsoever.

If you consume your tea leaves whole or if you use Matcha green tea powder, which is made from whole leaves, it would make sense to avoid tea from Shizuoka. Luckily, the best Matcha comes from the Uji and the Yame regions anyway.

Any specialty tea shop or online tea shop will be able to tell you exactly where their teas come from. If you are buying Matcha or otherwise consume your tea leaves directly or if you are simply worried, avoid tea from Shizuoka and buy from any of the other major tea growing regions instead. Wherever you buy it, enjoy your tea!

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