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Now Available: Harmonized Guidance on Managing Exposures from Radioactivity in Food in “Normal” Situations


Organizers of the IAEA’s 66th General Conference side event. (Photo: N. Ivanova/IAEA)

Since 2017 the IAEA in cooperation with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), has been working on a project to provide science-based international guidance to national authorities for managing radiation doses in food. This work has culminated in a harmonized guidance for assessing and managing exposures from radioactivity in food in non-emergency situations, presented at an event on the sidelines of the IAEA’s 66th General Conference last month.

“The criteria for controlling public exposure to radiation in food was primarily focused on nuclear or radiological emergencies. With the important collaboration with the FAO and WHO and the two new publications recently issued, the IAEA Safety Report Nº 114 and IAEA-TECDOC-2011, practical guidance is now available on managing radionuclides in food in non- emergency situations,” said Lydie Evrard, IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of the Department of Nuclear Safety and Security, in her opening remarks.

The event was organised to provide countries attending this year’s IAEA General Conference with information on the different approaches to assessing and managing exposures from radionuclides in food during non-emergency situations. Radiation exposure from the consumption of food in such situations is required to be managed through the establishment, and use, of reference levels, and needs to take into account both natural and human-made radionuclides.

Guidance and recommendations

In the past, international standards and guidance on the management of radionuclides in food focused primarily on situations following a nuclear or radiological emergency. The international food standards of the Joint FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission , for example, established guideline levels for radionuclides in foods following a nuclear or radiological emergency, and the IAEA established international standards on the derivation and use of activity concentrations in food following a nuclear or radiological emergency.

Radionuclides in food in normal situations

Radionuclides are unstable forms of elements emitting radiation. There are many sources of natural and human-made radionuclides in food. In normal (non-emergency) situations, most of the radiation dose from the ingestion of radionuclides in food comes from a relatively small number of natural radionuclides, which have been present for millions of years in varying concentrations in the environment, and therefore in food and water. The most common radionuclides are isotopes of radium, lead and polonium, all of which are naturally present in the environment.

In particular, polonium-210, lead-210, radium-226 and radium-228 are responsible for 90 per cent of the radiation dose received from food by people worldwide, according to the results of the FAO- IAEA-WHO project, which covered five years from 2017 to 2022.  

“One needs to be able to assess the food supply by assessing the radiation dose a person may receive from eating radionuclides in foods that comprise the yearly diet,” said Carl Blackburn, Food Specialist at the Joint FAO/IAEA Programme for Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture. “Another type of approach needed is the ability to make a quick assessment of a particular type of food product, like milk products, vegetables, fish, seafood and so forth, especially if it is known that it might concentrate naturally occurring radionuclides or contain out of the ordinary levels of other radionuclides.”

The guidance assists national authorities in identifying situations where radionuclide levels are unusually high, which might require some form of control to be considered. It provides an easy-to-use guidance level for food products in terms of activity concentrations, which helps assess the radionuclide content of food that is traded.

“Food safety and drinking-water quality are public health priorities, and this is why WHO is part of this project,” said Emilie van Deventer, WHO Radiation and Health Unit Head. “This topic is our common interest, and its purpose is to protect the health of consumers.”

At the event, representatives from Ireland and Norway presented experiences in assessing and managing exposures from radionuclides in food, respectively illustrating how the proposed approaches can be applied in practice at national and regional levels.

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