'Space Tomatoes' Present No Risk, Schools Assured
Tomatoes grown from seeds exposed to space radiation present no health risk to schoolchildren nationwide who are using the seeds in science experiments, officials of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration said last week.
"There is no validity that this presents a hazard to schoolchildren," said William H. Kinard, chief scientist for nasa's Long Duration Exposure Facility, which carried the seeds as one of 57 experiments on a satellite launched in 1984.
The seeds, which were recovered by the space shuttle Columbia in January after orbiting the Earth for six years, were included in 121,000 kits distributed to schools for science experiments on the effect of space radiation on living tissue.
Nasa's statement came in response to a Los Angeles Times report earlier this month that repeated a warning that the seeds could bear "toxic fruit."
The newspaper cited an unsigned memorandum from a nasa contractor that described "a remote possibility that radiation-caused mutations could cause the plants to produce toxic fruit."
The memo, written by an official of the aerospace education-services program at Oklahoma State University, which oversees nasa's school programs, had been sent to the space agency's teacher-resource center in Southern California.
Nasa and other officials asserted last week that the experiment presents no health risk to children, even if the resulting tomatoes are eaten.
Officials noted that the U.S. De4partment of Agriculture had evaluated the program before the seeds were distributed and that, in a letter included in the kits, a usda official says the seeds should "present no food safety risks."
However, the letter from Alvin L. Young, director of the department's office of agricultural biotechnology, is vague about whether children should be allowed to eat the fruit.
Students should be encouraged "to treat the plants and subsequent fruit as a research project, thus the retrieval of the next generation of seeds will be of interest," the letter said.
Dr. Young told the Times that he recommended that nasa tell teachers and students not to eat the tomatoes because "there are risks in everything we do."
But the space agency feared such a warning would make participants believe there was something wrong with the tomatoes, he told the paper.
In a statement released by nasa, Dr. Young said the experimental tomatoes "will be as safe as any tomatoes grown in a home garden."
However, at least one Los Angeles participant in the program chose not to use the space-exposed seeds after the contractor's memo became public.
Officials of the Barnsdall Art Park, which is overseen by the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department, decided to discard the seeds.
A nasa spokesman said thousands of seed kits were still available last week. Interested educators should write by April 30 to the nasa seeds Project, Code XEO, nasa, Washington, D.C. 20546. Requests should be sent on school stationery and include the grade level of students.