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Northwest very familiar with Iodine-131

An alfalfa field near Richland, Wash., Mar. 30, 2011.
Anna King
Northwest News Network
An alfalfa field near Richland, Wash., Mar. 30, 2011.

The small amounts of radioactive Iodine-131 found in milk in Spokane has been causing ripples of concern throughout the Northwest. Officials say the tiny amounts of radiation found in the milk were probably blown over from Japan’s stricken nuclear plants.

Just outside the Tri-Cities, Drex Gauntt’s alfalfa fields roll out like a plush emerald shag carpet. One of the ways that cows can pass Iodine-131 into their milkis by eating grass or hay that’s been contaminated with the radioactive isotope. Gauntt says he’s not too concerned.

Experts say there’s not enough of itto be a health risk. He says what worries him more is Japan’s economy.

“But exporters are telling us that the need for feed is still there. This hasn’t stopped any of the requests they’ve had for orders of forage,” says Gauntt.

Still, dairy and alfalfa farmers like Gauntt worry about consumer perceptions. Michael Payne is a research veterinarian at U.C. Davis. He says people should be more worried about proper pasteurization and packaging of milk products than radioactive Iodine-131 from Japan.

“As God as my witness I would drink that milk sample that came out of Spokane. I am that unconcerned about that level of radioactivity. I really am,” says Payne.

Historically, large releases of Iodine-131 caused health problems in the Northwest. About 250 people who lived mostly north of Richland claim they were exposed to radiation from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. The Downwinders, as they are known, are still suing the federal government. 

“So maybe the unanticipated events of Japan is that these people will get a chance to be heard and that’s all they want,” says Brian Depew, an attorney for the 'downwinders.'

Two months ago about thirty of Depew’s clients diagnosed with thyroid cancer were offered a settlement of $10,000 each from the federal government. He says most of them turned down the offer.

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.