TOKYO — Fears over Japan’s food and water supply escalated Wednesday after authorities announced they had discovered radioactive material above the legal limit in 11 types of vegetables and radioactive substances in water produced at a Tokyo purifying station.
Officials warned residents not to eat the vegetables produced in several prefectures near the badly damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility and recommended that infants not ingest tap water in Tokyo.
Tokyo officials said they would distribute three 550-milliliter bottles of water to every household in the capital where an infant was living — about 80,000 households.
Meanwhile, emergency work to repair the Daiichi plant was halted again when smoke was seen blowing from the complex Wednesday afternoon, prompting the second evacuation of workers in three days.
Crews have been attempting to restore electrical power to four of Daiichi’s six nuclear reactors, which are in various states of overheating.
The situation at Daiichi still warranted “serious concern,” said Graham Andrew, technical adviser to the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, although radiation readings at the site were declining. He added that since partial power was restored to the facility, IAEA had been receiving better data from Japanese authorities regarding the status of each stricken reactor. Andrew said IAEA experts were analyzing temperature and pressure readings from the reactors and would send advice on proposed actions to Japanese authorities.
Some of the reactors have spewed radioactive particles into the air, leading to the contamination of crops, milk and water.
The March 11 earthquake and tsunami have left 9,487 dead and 15,617 missing, the National Police Agency reported. And the Japanese government said Wednesday that the escalating catastrophes have caused up to 25 trillion yen ($309 billion) in damages. That estimate is far higher than the $235 billion figure suggested by the World Bank this week.
The Japanese government’s warning on tap water sparked fears among many mothers of young children in Tokyo, including Mitsue Watanabe, 39, who said she was “really worried.” She said she called a couple of stores to try to find bottled water, but the stores were sold out.
“They say they don’t know when they will get more,” Watanabe said. “I breast-feed, but my child is starting solids, and I have to cook her meals using tap water. I have been exchanging e-mails with mum-friends with babies sharing concerns and to get tips on what to do.”
The list of contaminated vegetables includes broccoli, cabbage, turnips, parsley and other green leaf vegetables, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry said. This week, government officials found elevated radiation levels in raw milk and spinach in several prefectures near the Daiichi plant.
Though officials had said the radiation in milk and spinach was not high enough to be harmful to humans, the latest tests show contamination that is high enough to be unsafe if the vegetables are consumed on a regular basis. Eating 100 grams for 10 days would be equivalent to the amount of radiation a person receives from the natural environment for a year, health officials said.
Concerns about Japan’s agricultural exports spread to the United States Tuesday, when the Food and Drug Administration banned the import of dairy products, fruit and vegetables from four prefectures — Fukushima, Ibaraki, Tochigi and Gunma. Japanese seafood will be allowed into the U.S. market after being screened, the agency said.
The Japanese government has said it will offer subsidies to farmers whose crops have been affected by the nuclear fallout, but some farmers fear their livelihoods will be severely threatened as consumers change their eating habits.
The dangers associated with food that has been contaminated by radioactive material was highlighted in the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986, when thousands of children who ingested milk developed thyroid cancer.
Tokyo resident Jinko Sato, 39, who is pregnant with her third child, said she doesn’t know what to do now that she cannot use water to cook.
“What to me was something that was happening far away,” Sato said, “has all of a sudden become an immediate concern.”
Also Wednesday, the Department of Energy released radiation data collected from 40 hours of flights near the Daiichi facility. The flights found more radiation to the northwest of the plant than elsewhere. The maximum radiation recorded by the team was 300 microsieverts per hour; by comparison, a round-trip flight from Tokyo to New York exposes passengers to about 200 microsieverts of radiation from cosmic rays.
Meanwhile, wisps of radioactivity from the facility were detected in Washington state and California, the Environmental Protection Agency reported. While the EPA’s monitors detected a few radioactive isotopes that likely originated at Daiichi, the amounts detected “are hundreds of thousands to millions of times below levels of concern,” the agency said in a statement.
Staff writer Brian Vastag and special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.