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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Radioactive Cranberries Discovered At Markets

A total of 660 kilograms of radioactive cranberries have been discovered in Moscow markets so far this year, health officials said Monday, blaming the contamination largely on the Chernobyl disaster.

The radioactive klyukva have come from Ukraine and Belarus, which were the hardest hit by the 1986 nuclear explosion, but also from several regions in Russia, said Lyubov Petrova of the city's veterinary service, which is responsible for testing meat, milk and produce sold in markets.

The cranberries, which are smaller and more delicate than their American cousins, tested positive for highly radioactive cesium, said Petrova, who heads the service's sanitary department.

All berries found to be contaminated were seized and destroyed before they could be offered for sale, she said.

Although naturally occurring cesium is not radioactive, numerous radioactive isotopes of the element are produced in nuclear reactions.

Together with strontium, cesium can penetrate the root systems of plants and mushrooms. Poisonous products usually taste, look and smell completely normal, and the consequences of radioactive poisoning cannot be felt immediately.

The half-life of cesium-137, a typical isotope commonly used in medical radiology, is 30 years and it decays to negligible levels after about 300 years. Radioactive cesium can accumulate in body cells and cause mutations leading to various diseases, including cancer.

After testing at the market, the radioactive berries were confiscated from the vendors and taken to the city's veterinary laboratory for more sophisticated analysis.

The maximum amount of cesium that is considered safe is different for different products. For cranberries it is 40 becquerel, or Bq, per kilogram.

Svetlana Osipova, the head of the laboratory's radiology department, said her lab carried out 35 tests of berries this year, 16 in April alone.

The highest level of cesium - 1,110 Bq - was found in one batch of cranberries from Ukraine, Osipova said. Other batches from Ukraine and Belarus tested at 310 and 465.

The level of cesium in cranberries coming from the Smolensk, Tver, Kaluga, Bryansk and Leningrad regions was much lower: 42, 59 and 93 Bq.

A haul of 227 kilograms of radioactive cranberries was seized during one day this month at the market near Kievsky Station. Ukrainian vendors predominate at this market, which is popular because of its reputation as being reasonably priced. Osipova said the Chernobyl catastrophe on April 26, 1986, was the main source of the radioactive poisoning.

Under Russian health regulations, everything coming from the forest, including various berries and mushrooms, should undergo radiation tests before it reaches market customers. The regulation was introduced in the early 1990s in response to Chernobyl.

Petrova said products in markets can be trusted as safe, but her office has no control over products being sold on the street. Moscow has been flooded recently with street vendors selling everything from meat to diary products and wild berries. Such vendors keep their prices relatively low as they generally avoid testing.