Is Tea From Japan Radioactive? The Fukushima Nuclear Disaster and Its Effect on Japanese Teas

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Published: 31st October 2012
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Directly after the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, the Japanese government assured us that the agricultural industry had not been affected in a negative way. As the months passed and one product after another coming from an ever increasing radius around the disaster area was found 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 for the time being, Shizuoka, which produces 40% of Japan's tea output and is located over 300km from the disaster area, had not been affected. In June of 2011 that changed, 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.

Most of Japan's tea is grown far to the west of the disaster area. Shizuoka is the closest of the major tea producing regions and it is also the only one affected by radiation. Most of the teas tested from Shizuoka showed trace amounts of radiation, but only a few have been found to contain radiation in excess of the safety standards and then only in the dry leaves. Once steeped, the radiation levels are well 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 especially 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 whole tea leaves or if you use Matcha green tea powder, which is made from whole leaves, it would make sense to avoid any tea produced in Shizuoka. Luckily, the best Matcha comes from the Uji and the Yame regions anyway.

Some people have become so worried about tea from Japan that they have switched to teas from other countries like China or India. If you are switching solely out of concerns over radiation levels in Japanese teas, you might as well just stay with varieties from Japan. As I mentioned above, only teas from Shizuoka have been affected at all and even those have only been minimally affected. Only very few teas have shown levels of radiation above the strict safety levels set by the Japanese government.

Additionally, switching to Chinese or Indian teas brings with it other concerns. Many products from China are contaminated with chemical harmful compounds and often at much higher levels and the same can go for teas from India. Furthermore, Indian green teas are nowhere near the same quality as green teas from Japan.

If you are concerned, a specialty tea shop or an online tea shop will be able to tell you where their selection of tea comes from exactly. If you are buying Matcha or if you otherwise consume your tea leaves whole--or if you are simply worried--avoid tea from Shizuoka and buy from any of Japan's other major tea producing areas instead. Above all, no matter where you buy your tea, enjoy it!

If you would like to know more about Japanese green teas or tea in general, check out my tea drinker's guide.

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