Down Wind From Chernobyl

Twenty Years After the Tragedy, the Damage to Health is Still Unclear

On Saturday, Apr. 25, 1986 at 23:00 near a small town in the Ukraine, a reactor in a nuclear energy station was put through a test.  It was a test that had been successfully undertaken previously – with negative results – and it was, for safety reasons, being tested again.  Plans had been made to run the test earlier that day, but when a regional power station had shut down as they were preparing for the test, it was decided to delay it until evening. For the next two hours, the reactor was prepared for the test by the night shift – a skeleton crew of mostly inexperienced operators who, not having heard the earlier directions, shut the power down too fast. What followed was the worst nuclear power plant accident in history: Chernobyl.

For the first day or so after the accident, the dangers posed by the Chernobyl fallout were not shared by the Soviets with other countries – particularly not with those neighboring their own borders. It was workers at a Swedish nuclear plant who found radioactive particles on their clothing that brought the crisis to the attention of the rest of the world.

By that time, however, the radioactive cloud carrying hugely destructive level of radioactive waste had plumed over Europe and was carrying the deadly contents westward. Within six days, most of Europe was covered.

The worst-hit areas outside of Russia, Belarus and the Ukraine included Norway, Finland, the Czech Republic – and Austria.

Since Chernobyl, the effects of radiation sickness and cancer have been heavily monitored in all areas surrounding the site.  It is the other areas in Europe, however, that  monitoring has been neglected – an oversight that can have profound consequences in a sweep of Central European countries west of Chernobyl, adding Slovakia, Romania, Hungary and Poland to the aforementioned worst-hit list.

In fact, statistical data on cancer rates and other health consequences from Chernobyl are hard to come by in Central and Eastern Europe, due in part to the political changes following the fall of the Iron Curtain and new socio-economic regimes.

But the consequences are there all the same. Sabine B. was born in Bosnia in 1984 and left for Vienna four years later. She doesn’t remember Chernobyl – but the recurring tumors in both of her breasts since she was 14 “make me wonder how much radioactive pollution we were contaminated with,” she told The Vienna Review in November. “My grandfather died of thyroid cancer and my aunt died of breast cancer. I used to think it was the lower living standard, but now I’m not so sure.”

Sabine is just one of a number of young people wondering how much Chernobyl has affected their lives.

“On my street,” says Denisa M., “there have been a lot of deaths from cancer.  More than there used to be.”  Martina B. has lived in Slovakia all her life. She’s lost an aunt, her godmother and a neighbor – all to breast cancer.

“It’s a little odd,” she says and shrugs, “but we all grew up in a different regime.  Our parents were taught not to ask why – and we’ve learned it from them.”

The statistics for this part of Europe don’t show any significant increase in breast cancer, however. Denisa laughs.

“Why would they?  I live in a country where trying to get the phone connected is like trying to tie a rope around the world,” she said. “It isn’t like it is in the States or in England.  We just don’t have the infrastructure for something as ordered and reliable as statistical analysis. The government doesn’t know what’s going on because they’re so busy trying to compete economically with the rest of the world.”

The fallout from Chernobyl has not been adequately monitored in countries outside of Belarus, Ukraine or Russia. Breast and thyroid cancer rates have increased throughout Europe in the twenty-odd years following the disaster – but just how much and in what areas nobody knows.  Most of the statistics concern cancer rates per capita, and unfortunately fallout doesn’t stop at the border. There were some areas heavily affected within one country, while other areas were not affected at all.

There is a great deal of uncertainty still regarding the effect of what happened that summer in 1986. What is known is what radioactive fallout can do: Caesium-137 has a half-life of thirty years (i.e. after thirty years, half of it is gone). It is insidiously destructive, ripping through tissues and annihilating everything in its path, causing mutations and cell death, according to the Canadian Nuclear Society.

As impregnated cloud formations pass over an area, weather conditions can bring the radiation down onto whatever is below; thus, anyone outdoors in Central Europe at anytime from Apr. 26, 1986 onward could potentially be at risk. This applies to today, as Caesium-137 remains present for many years after it is released to the environment due to its radiological half-life of 30.23 years. The Environmental Science Division, one of 25 programmatic divisions at Argonne National Laboratory, located in the US, reports that from the time of ingestion, inhalation or absorption, this isotope can cause cancer up to thirty years later, provided sufficient material entered the body.

is potentially at risk. According to a report by the Greens/EFA of the European Parliament in 2006, about 40% of the total European area was contaminated by Caesium-137, a fact was previously not disclosed.  Perhaps most insidious, the fallout landed on agricultural areas, on fruit, vegetables and grain, and on the grazing land of milk cow, directly entering the food chain where can be ingested by virtually everyone.

A study of 2,115 measurements taken through Austria indicate a caesium-137 contamination as high as 1:100, as reported by the Journal of Environmental Radioactivity in 2001. Austria was hit with about 2% of the total caesium-137 released from the reactor during the accident.

Elsewhere in Central Europe, there are no studies. At the time of Chernobyl, Sabine would probably have been playing in the backyard of her house in Bosnia.. It would have been summer. It might even have rained, bringing the radioactive material directly onto her head, hands and any exposed skin. As the former Eastern Block countries become integrated into Europe, the question facing the now-prosperous European Union is, How much?

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