VIENNA (Reuters) - Japan confirmed the presence of radioactive iodine contamination in food products from near a crippled nuclear plant and ordered a halt to the sale of such products from the area, the U.N. nuclear body said on Saturday.
In what it called another "critical" measure to counter the contamination of food products, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said Japanese authorities on March 16 recommended that people leaving the area should ingest stable iodine.
Taken as pills or syrup, stable iodine can be used to help protect against thyroid cancer in the case of radioactive exposure in a nuclear accident.
"Though radioactive iodine has a short half-life of about 8 days and decays naturally within a matter of weeks, there is a short-term risk to human health if radioactive iodine in food is absorbed into the human body," the IAEA said in a statement.
Japan's top government spokesman earlier on Saturday said tests detected radiation above the national safety level in spinach and milk produced near the Fukushima nuclear plant.
It was the first known case of contamination since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that touched off the crisis.
Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said radiation levels in milk from a Fukushima farm about 30 km (18 miles) from the plant, and spinach grown in Ibaraki, a neighboring prefecture, exceeded limits set by the government.
He said these higher radiation levels still posed no risk to human health.
But the IAEA said radioactive iodine if ingested "can accumulate in and cause damage to the thyroid. Children and young people are particularly at risk of thyroid damage due to the ingestion of radioactive iodine."
(Reporting by Fredrik Dahl; editing by David Cowell)