How food and water are affected by radioactive substances

In the event of a fallout of radioactive substances it is primarily food products and water that are outdoors that become contaminated. This page offers growers, farmers, and producers of food and water information and support on planning and responding in the event of a radioactive emergency.

Limits, and the measures to be taken, depend on the substance in question. In the case of an accident at a nuclear power plant, radioactive iodine (IO-131) and radioactive caesium (Cs-137) are the most common substances. Radioactive strontium (sr-90) is primarily a problem connected with the detonation of a nuclear weapon, or in very close proximity to an emission source.

These substances can, in the long-term, result in an increased risk of developing cancer. Therefore, you should wait for measurements and recommendations from authorities before eating or drinking anything that could have been exposed to radioactive fallout.

What is a radioactive fallout?

Radioactive fallout is similar to a fine dust. The “dust” consists of several different radioactive substances, commonly iodine and caesium, and can affect large areas to varying degrees. The “dust” settles on the ground, plants, buildings, and roads and can even be inhaled. The substances can, if you are exposed to large amounts, cause acute radiation damage and cancer.

How are food products affected by radioactive fallout?

In the event of a radioactive fallout, it is primarily food products and raw materials outdoors that are contaminated. This can include grains in cultivated fields, wild mushrooms, berries, and game in forests, fish and water from lakes, as well as fruit and vegetables from gardens.

You can also be exposed to radioactive substances by ingesting contaminated food or water.

Meat and dairy products become contaminated when radiative substances come into contact with their feed or pasture. This means that reindeer and game ingest radioactive substances in their natural diet. Even drinking water can be contaminated if radioactive substances enter the water supply, either directly or via inflowing water sources.

Proactive measures

Generally, food products that are stored indoors or well covered at the time of a radioactive fallout, can be consumed. If you feel unsure, wait for information from the authorities. If there is the risk of a radioactive fallout, you can cover crops or fruit bushes with a waterproof or water-resistant sheet as a proactive measure.

By always having a storage of food and water at home so you don´t have to go shopping for a week, you can be even more prepared for any type of crises.
The Swedish Board of Agriculture has a list of proactive measures for farmers, see link below.

Support in preparedness initiatives

The Swedish Food Agency’s responsibility in the event of a radioactive emergency

The Swedish Food Agency works to ensure safe food and drinking water. In the event of a radioactive emergency or the detonation of a nuclear weapon, we assess the consequences for food supply and provide material and support to, for example, The County Administration Board and municipalities in their management and inspection of food products.

We work proactively in collaboration with other authorities and stakeholders so that affected parties know what needs to be done in the event of an eventual radioactive emergency or accident.

Changed limits in the event of an incident

The permitted limits for radioactivity in food products can be raised following an accident at a nuclear powerplant or any other case of radioactive emergency. This is because the current limits are set based on a lifetime of radiation exposure.

The risks of a higher level of exposure under a limited period of time are not judged to have significantly adverse health effects. This risk is weighed against the importance of getting enough energy.

A decision regarding raised limits is taken by the EU and is then implemented collectively throughout the entire EU. The raised limits are reviewed, at the latest, three months after the decision.

Reviewed 2023-11-30