The Japanese consul general in Hong Kong yesterday rejected claims that some tourists had fallen sick or had miscarriages in the wake of Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster.
His comment came after a new international study found that radiation contamination caused by leakage at the tsunami-stricken plant could be more widespread than projected.
'There have not been any health problems in Japan related to radioactivity,' Yuji Kumamaru said. 'The only ones affected were workers at the plant. People living in Fukushima are not affected.'
He was trying to counter rumours widely circulating on the internet.
One posting said a pregnant woman was advised to abort her baby after visiting Japan, while another woman was supposedly told not to get pregnant within three years because she had been exposed to excessive radiation.
But Kumamaru said the comments were 'scientifically unfounded', saying radiation levels in Tokyo were lower than those in Hong Kong, Seoul and Beijing.
An hourly 0.054 micro sievert of radiation was detected in Tokyo on Wednesday, while 0.08 to 0.14 micro sievert was found in Hong Kong. But levels in Fukushima remain at around 0.98 micro sievert.
Kumamaru said the consulate had been receiving about two inquiries a day about the rumours, most expressing safety and health concerns.
While the consulate worked at calming fears about travelling to Japan, an international study mapping the radioactive contamination following the quake and tsunami has raised new worries.
The study, conducted by scientists from the United States, Japan and Norway between March 20 and April 19, was published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences journal. It found soil in large areas of north and northeastern Japan was heavily contaminated by caesium-137, which could linger in the environment for decades.
It raised concerns over food production in eastern Fukushima prefecture, which has been hit by radiation above the upper limit allowed for farming, while neighbouring provinces such as Iwate, Miyagi, Yamagata, Niigata, Tochigi, Ibaraki, and Chiba, though with lower readings, are also affected.
The scientists said their study could not fully capture district variations due to different precipitation patterns. They said even in a region with low concentrations of soil contamination, hotspots might still exist.
Professor Woo Chung-ho, a nuclear specialist at Hong Kong's Polytechnic University, said the study's findings were expected. 'What's out from the nuclear plant is out,' he said. 'The biggest worry now is the spread of the radiation contamination in the food chain. We need to pay attention and be on alert but we don't need to panic.'
Woo said the study showed that radioactivity in the eastern areas could be considered 'serious' for rice agriculture.
Two days ago, the Japanese government asked the Fukushima prefecture to ban the shipment of rice from the Onami region after excessive levels of caesium-137 were found.
But Woo said the study did not cover marine sediments since heavily contaminated water used to cool down the reactors were pumped into the ocean. Once there, the contamination would spread through the food chain and no one could predict where they would end up, he added.
Hong Kong is Japan's largest food export market, including re-exports. Exports recorded a double-digit decline from the quake until September, when a rebound was recorded.
Kumamaru offered reassurances yesterday that no contaminated food would be exported to Hong Kong.
He said food from the five worst-hit prefectures was banned from being sent to the city, while food from other areas was checked by the relevant authorities. Of the soil contamination problem, Kumamaru said the government was trying to deal with it.
'There is indeed a problem about where to put the soil once it is removed, but we will sort it out,' he said.
Leung Ka-sing, associate professor at Polytechnic University's department of applied biology and chemical technology, said contaminated soil did not mean the agricultural products grown there were unsafe to eat. 'Soil covers an extensive area and its depth varies. Vegetables there do not absorb all radiation, and water dilutes caesium too,' he said.