Nearly thirty years after an explosion and reactor meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, residents of the contaminated areas surrounding the disaster site are still being exposed to dangerously high levels of radiation, especially in the food that they eat.
Researchers investigating contamination of locally produced food and forest products in the Ukraine and Russia found that levels of radioactive isotopes were substantially higher than the permissible limits for human consumption, in some cases by as much as 16 times. The findings were detailed in a Greenpeace report released on Wednesday.
"These disasters go on for not only for decades or centuries, but perhaps millennium," said Shawn-Patrick Stensil, a senior energy analyst with Greenpeace and a co-author of the report. "We are still seeing contamination levels that are way higher than permissible limits."
The Chernobyl accident, which occurred on April 26, 1986, released 200 times the radioactivity of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs, according to the World Health Organization.
Researchers identified nuclear isotopes caesium-137 as a particular concern because it is easily absorbed by plants. High levels of the isotope were detected in milk, wild mushrooms, berries, and meat.
Of the 50 milk samples collected from the Rivne region, located 200km (124 miles) from the Chernobyl site, "all contained cesium-137 at levels above the limit value set for consumption by adults in Ukraine, and all were substantially above the lower limit set for children," according to the report.
Grain samples, collected from fields in the Kiev region, approximately 50 km (31 miles) from Chernobyl, had radioactive isotope levels that were, in some cases, more than double the limit for human consumption.
Dried mushrooms, collected from the forest in the in the Rivne region and stored by local families, were found to have levels of cesium-137 at 16 times the permissible limit.
Cesium-137 has a half-life of 30 years and will take several centuries to decay to levels that don't present a risk to humans. Exposure to the isotope, particularly through ingestion, can increase cancer risk, according to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
"These isotopes are circulating through the ecosystem in ways that we never imagined," explained Stensil. "If you live next to the forest, it's part of your way of life. These communities will have to be continually decontaminated."
Forest fires were also identified as a possible risk for recontamination because they release radioactive particles stored in trees into the atmosphere. The report found that between 1993-2013 more than 1,100 wildfires occurred in the Chernobyl exclusion zone.
Ukraine's economic hardships have made it difficult for ordinary citizens to avoid contaminated food. The country's economy contracted 12 percent in 2015, according to the World Bank. A pro-Russia insurgency in the east has further stretched the country's resources. Many post-Chernobyl monitoring programs designed to measure levels of radioactive contamination have been suspended for financial reasons, according to the report.
"To monitor food in the long term costs money," says Stensil. "So a lot of these issues are political."
Thousands of children, even those born 30 years after Chernobyl, still regularly drink radioactively contaminated milk.
"We have milk and bake bread ourselves — that yes, is with radiation," said Halina Chmulevych, a single mother of two children cited in the report. She lives 200 km west of Chernobyl and says there are limited possibilities to eat food free of radiation. "Of course, it worries me but what can I do? My mother got cancer immediately after the Chernobyl [disaster] and she died."
Incidences of thyroid cancer in children living in Ukraine exposed to radiation in the aftermath of Chernobyl were 9.7 times higher than those who were unexposed. Chernobyl cleanup workers were found to have higher incidences of leukemia and breast cancer, according to the report.
Establishing a causal link between specific events and high cancer rates is difficult. People are continually exposed to natural sources of radiation from food, air, and the sun, among other possible sources. But a report issued by the World Health Organization noted that the large increase in the incidences of thyroid cancer in young children living in contaminated areas of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia "was due to the high levels of radioactive iodine released from the Chernobyl reactor in the early days after the accident."
Researchers acknowledge that they still don't know how major nuclear accidents unfold in the future. "We're running experiments on two major accidents to explore how radioisotopes move through the environment over time," explained Stensil, referring to both Chernobyl and the Fukushima disaster that occurred in Japan in 2011. "What we're learning is that it will take generations before these radioisotopes are stable again. During all that time, survivors living in the area are at risk."
The report recommends that simple and practical measure could reduce consumption of contaminated food, such as sourcing hay to feed livestock from regions that are not contaminated. But it also makes larger demands, like the phasing out of nuclear power entirely, and government compensation to survivors for loss of livelihood and health risks incurred.
"The effects of these disasters are irreversible, from both an environmental and social perspective," says Stensil. "We have solutions that can replace nuclear power. We should use them."
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