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Ensure Safe Consumption: New IAEA Publication on Radionuclide Activity Concentrations Criteria for Food and Drinking Water

A new IAEA publication consolidating data on the acceptable level of radionuclides in food and drinking water will form the basis of developing a harmonized global system in coming years.

As discussed in Criteria for Radionuclide Activity Concentrations for Food and Drinking Water, a number of international standards exist for the amount of radionuclides food and drinking water can contain. In addition, different limits apply to national production and to international trade, said Tony Colgan, Head of the IAEA’s Radiation Protection Unit.

Radionuclides are present in the environment in varying amounts. Naturally occurring radionuclides, such as potassium-40, polonium-210, thorium-232 and uranium-238 can be present in food and drinking water in measureable quantities.

Under certain circumstances, small amounts of manmade radionuclides may also be present as a result of authorized discharges from licensed facilities or past accidents, Colgan said. “In the recovery phase following a nuclear or radiological emergency, easily measureable amounts of radionuclides can sometimes still be found in various foodstuffs and these may persist for several years”.

The new publication reviews the current international standards developed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the IAEA and the World Health Organization (WHO) in these two areas, including the various acceptability criteria for radionuclides concentration for food and drinking water. The publication also discusses the management of situations where certain foods, such as wild mushrooms and game meat, may contain elevated levels of radionuclides over an extended period.

“The aim of the publication is to take stock of what’s out there,” said Peter Johnston, Director of Radiation, Transport and Waste Safety at the IAEA. “We can then use this as the starting point for the development of a harmonized set of standards, working in collaboration with IAEA Member States and the relevant International Organizations.” 

The publication is intended for use by regulatory bodies, policymakers and other interested parties with responsibilities in relation to the management of various situations where radionuclides are or could be present in food and in drinking water, including during the recovery phase following a nuclear or radiological emergency. In addition, it will assist in developing comprehensive national standards for radionuclide activity concentrations in these specific areas.

International standards for food and drinking water

The IAEA standards on radionuclides in food and drinking water in non-emergency situations are based on the publications of the Joint FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission1 and the WHO2.

National authorities need to implement monitoring programmes to access the quality of food and drinking water on an ongoing basis, and not just in the aftermath of a nuclear or radiological emergency. The IAEA is consulting with Member States on the need to provide additional guidance on these matters.


1 Codex General Standard for Contaminants and Toxins in Food and Feed, Schedule 1 — Radionuclides, CODEX STAN 193-1995, JOINT FAO/WHO FOOD STANDARDS PROGRAMME, CODEX ALIMENTARIUS COMMISSION (CAC), Rome (2006).

2 Guidelines for Drinking-water Quality — Fourth Edition, WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION (WHO), Geneva (2011).  


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