Volume 15 Number 3
Children of Chernobyl's Fallout
01 June 2002
Sixteen years after the world's worst nuclear accident, Kenneth Noble visits the children who are still suffering as a result.
I sit at lunch with three teachers and two scientists in the village school of Yurovichi in south-east Belarus. The teachers are all widows. One lost her husband, aged 46, to cancer. The other husbands died at 50. Nothing can be proved but the teachers feel that these and another such premature death in the school must be linked with the Chernobyl nuclear explosion of April 1986.
Yurovichi lies just 60 kilometres from Chernobyl in neighbouring Ukraine and is outside the most contaminated area - the so-called 'dead zone' which foreigners are not allowed to visit. But tests carried out in 1999 in a similarly situated school by the Institute of Radiation Safety, Belrad, showed that the average level of radiation in the pupils was some four to five times the safe level for children. Children are more vulnerable to radiation as their body cells are dividing rapidly.
My host, physicist Alexander Pinchook, says that some 370,000 children living in villages in Gomel province, as well as many more in neighbouring Mogilev province, are at risk. The mission of CentreAction - the NGO which he, Sergei Shavrei and others set up in 1999 - is to get to know the staff and pupils at schools in the contaminated area; to teach safety measures; and to combat the fatalism and depression that the disaster has engendered in many.
At a school in another village, Glinishcha (famous as the birth-place of the novelist Ivan Melezh), the children and teachers have been told to bring in food samples. Pinchook and Shavrei have brought their Becquerel monitor, an expensive piece of apparatus which measures radiation levels. It was donated by the Otto Hug Institute in Münich, Germany, in 1992, two years after Pinchook first started devoting his spare time to this work.
The teachers fill beakers with carrots, cabbage, wild mushrooms, milk, berries and other standard items of fare. As each sample is placed in the apparatus, numbers are illuminated on a small display screen. A boy, perhaps 11, peers at the monitor and relays the figures to his 45 schoolmates, jammed into desks behind him. They listen in silence as the verdict is passed on each sample. Most of the items are safe but the dried mushrooms, a popular food gathered from the forest which covers one third of the country, registers almost double the permitted level for adults. Some of the milk measures a safe 13 becquerels per kg but Pinchook recalls one sample that read 700 because the cows had been grazing in the forest, which is more contaminated than farmland.
The scientists finish their tests and then talk to the children about radiation. 'We don't just give dry figures,' Pinchook tells me. 'We explain what counter-measures can be taken - for example if milk is turned into cheese or butter most of the radiation goes in the water that is drained off.' Shavrei produces a small sample of radioactive strontium from a lead container and holds a Geiger-counter above it. There is an audible clicking which rapidly increases in speed as he approaches the sample.
The point of this demonstration is that it gives the children something tangible to observe. The unnerving thing about radioactivity is that no human senses can detect it. The surrounding fields and forests, the food and the village all look normal. Without expensive equipment it is impossible to tell where the danger lies. Yet the symptoms are there in the children, and the teachers are all too aware of them. CentreAction were asked to come to Glinishcha because the teachers were worried about their pupils. 'Before Chernobyl there would be perhaps three children per class who were unfit to have PE (physical education) lessons; now the average class has only three who can do PE,' the school principal, Ol'ga Tsirulik, tells me. 'Children often faint or have headaches, and many have had to have their thyroid glands removed.'
When the class has been dismissed we retire to the staff room for a discussion with the teachers. They ask me many questions about schools in the UK, and I want to know why there are hardly any men teachers. Apparently few are willing to work for the equivalent of £1,000 per year. The teachers' concern about their pupils is heartfelt. 'Could you arrange for some of them to have holidays in Britain?' they plead. It has been proved that getting away from the contaminated area for even a couple of months markedly reduces the level of radiation in children. Formerly the government paid for such holidays but funding has now dried up.
Pinchook and Shavrei give the teachers a few precious copies of their booklet, Living with nuclear radiation: theory and practice. Produced in small numbers with funding from a Dutch voluntary organization, Milieukontakt Oost-Europa, it is full of advice on how to minimize the risks of nuclear contamination as well as explaining the physical processes. It shows, for instance, that the forest absorbed far more radiation than other ecosystems because the countless billions of pine needles presented a huge area of exposure to the rain-borne radionuclides (radioactive atoms). As a result fruits of the forest - traditionally popular free food - are especially dangerous. The book also explains that clay particles will bond with nuclei of Ceasium-137 (the main contaminant which will persist for another 600 years). This means that the contaminant stays in clay soil and does not enter the crops.
As we prepare to leave, Ol'ga Tsirulik tells me that her own son works at Chernobyl and she worries about him, though her grandchildren seem to be healthy. She feels that her 147 pupils, aged between six and 17, will be more aware of the dangers of radiation following CentreAction's visit but adds: 'Officials assume that our area is relatively safe, and special measures are no longer taken. Now, if parents want to send their children to clear areas, they have to pay.' The children's health is her teachers' main worry, more so than the lack of books, computers and equipment.
These sentiments are echoed by the teachers in Yurovichi, a village which was the scene of heavy casualties during World War II because it occupies strategically important high ground. The village was also the site of a massacre of 400 Jews by the Nazis, a fact recalled in a remarkable school museum which has Jewish memorabilia as well as exhibits ranging from locally excavated mammoth tusks through antique agricultural artefacts to Soviet-era portraits of Lenin.
The teachers produce a generous four-course meal which climaxes in a magnificent concoction of sponge cake, chocolate, sugar, cherries, nuts and jam. It rejoices in the politically correct name of 'ruins of the count's castle'. As we tackle this tour de force, the teachers tell me that in this school, too, the children often faint, and get pains in their livers when they run. The teachers are also concerned about their pupils' psychological state. 'Since Chernobyl there is a lot of anxiety. The children have difficulties with their mental and emotional development. Concentration and intelligence are lower than previously.'
Pinchook and Shavrei have visited this school many times before. In fact the school director, Tamara Veko, is one of the five founding directors of CentreAction which is a registered NGO. Pinchook - who has reduced his work-load at university in order to devote more time to CentreAction - stresses the importance of building long-term relationships of trust with the teachers and pupils if the psychological and spiritual damage from Chernobyl is to be dealt with.
I ask the teachers about their hopes for the children. Some sigh at the size of the task. But they too would like the children to have time outside the 'zone', especially in Western countries, so that the quantity of radionuclides in their bodies could come down.
Pinchook shows me some research done by Professor Vasilii Nesterenko of Belrad. It includes a table of the levels of radiation in children before and after a two-month holiday in Moldova. The recommended 'safe' level for children is 20 becquerels per kg. Before the holiday the average reading was 80-100. Two sisters, born in 1991 and 1993, had readings of 896 and 687. After the holiday some children had acceptable levels and even the sisters had come down to 179 and 157. It turned out that their father was a hunter who brought home meat from the forest.
Back in Mozyr, a city of 105,000 just outside the contaminated zone, I talk with Pinchook and his wife Nathalie, a post-graduate student of diplomacy in Minsk, the Belarusian capital. She, too, is a director of CentreAction. She worked previously as a journalist in Narovlya, a seriously contaminated town, and knows only too well the fear that many live with. 'When the wind was from the direction of Chernobyl I was afraid. I was afraid to sunbathe or eat meat that my colleagues offered me. I had to walk through a beautiful park to catch the bus but I didn't dare to step off the asphalt into the woodland which was contaminated.' When she went to a collective farm to write an article she found great fear there, too. People expected to die young.
Alexander Pinchook sees an important part of CentreAction's work as dealing with the psychological aftermath of Chernobyl, which one psychologist diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder. 'Fear and a sense of helplessness lead to apathy,' he believes. Part of the answer lies in self-help schemes. He cites the example of a school where the teachers were complaining they only had black-and-white TV. CentreAction encouraged them to start breeding pigs. The school was able to earn enough to buy the colour TV they needed. The children learn from such schemes that there is something that they can do, and become motivated to observe safety precautions and have faith in the future.
While Pinchook is in favour of sending children abroad for holidays, he says that the benefits will be short-term unless they are taught how to eat safely - in fact Belrad's research suggests that the contamination in children's bodies can return to previous levels within a matter of days. 'Many families say that they cannot afford to eat correctly, but although there is genuine poverty the truth is that many do not take the trouble to eat the right food because they are still suffering psychological trauma from the shock of Chernobyl,' he says.
The Pinchooks and Shavrei gain no material reward for their work but say that they do gain a sense of spiritual fulfilment. It is as if they are doing what they know they are meant to do. Of course, says Alexander Pinchook with a note of realism, they can only keep in touch with about 50 schools out of the thousand or so in Gomel province.
As I leave the contaminated zone, two things live with me - the genuine concern expressed by so many of the teachers, some of whom have also suffered as a result of Chernobyl; and the memory of the children who are so vulnerable and need help.
If any reader of 'For A Change' would like to have a part in helping the victims of Chernobyl, please write to the editors. We would also like to hear from anyone who has helped with holiday schemes.
CHERNOBYL FACT FILE
One of four nuclear reactors in Chernobyl exploded on 26 April, 1986. Some safety systems had been turned off while an experiment was carried out.
70 per cent of the radioactive fall-out landed on Belarus, affecting 23 per cent of the country's area. (4.8 per cent of Ukraine and 0.5 per cent of Russia were contaminated.)
The area within 30 kms of Chernobyl is now deemed uninhabitable.
It has been estimated that, although different radionuclides were released, the total radioactivity of the material from Chernobyl was 200 times that of the combined releases from the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The most dangerous isotopes released were Iodine-131, Strontium-90 and Caesium-137. They have half-lives of 8 days, 29 years and 30 years respectively. Iodine is linked to thyroid cancer. Strontium can lead to leukaemia. Caesium is the element that travelled the furthest. It affects the entire body and especially the liver, heart and spleen.
In the area affected by Chernobyl there have been at least 1,800 cases of thyroid cancer in children who were under 15 years of age when the explosion occurred - a far higher incidence than normal.
The International Committee for Radiation Protection considers that if a child has x times the permitted level of radioactive substances in his or her body, they are x times more likely to suffer cancer or some other disease.
In February this year the UN called for a new approach to helping the millions of people impacted by Chernobyl. The 'emergency phase' is now over, argues a UNDP- and UNICEF-commissioned report, and a new 10-year 'recovery phase' must gradually replace it. A fundamental shift is needed in the way assistance is delivered to those impacted by the disaster, says the report, The human consequences of the Chernobyl nuclear accident - a strategy for recovery. It emphasizes the need for long-term community redevelopment and empowerment in which the affected populations play a key role.
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