Living With Fallout

An American abroad in Chernobyl's aftermath confronts the half-life of truth

I HAPPENED TO BE living in Rome when the accident at Chernobyl occurred, but, largely because of the accident, I do not live there anymore. As I sought to learn how worried I ought to be about the dose of radiation my family and millions of others had received, I gradually realized that I was also learning ways in which Western European citizens, with far greater access to information than their counterparts to the East, were being misled about radiation's effects on their lives.

The governments of Western Europe, like the Soviet government, had both exclusive access to important information and incentives to suppress it. When proof was produced that air radiation in certain parts of France had reached levels some four hundred times greater than normal, the French government suffered a brief embarrassment for having initially denied significant increases in radiation. With 65 percent of its electricity generated by nuclear power—the largest such percentage in the world—France had a great deal at stake. But just exactly how much other governments were willing to censor or minimize or misrepresent data was difficult to guess. As I observed the Italian government weather, quite easily, a domestic scandal about its own deliberate suppression of information—a scandal that never reached the international press—I wondered how many other people in Europe were beginning to worry that an entire continent had been enveloped in a cloud of secrecy.

In the days right after the accident my greatest personal concern, and my husband's, was to decide whether we and our two-year-old daughter should leave Italy. The possibility of moving first occurred to us on May 2, the day the Italian government announced a two week ban on the sale of virtually all green vegetables (not merely leafy ones, as in some countries) and on the consumption of milk by pregnant women and children under ten. Although Italy was farther from the accident than most countries in Europe, its government had ordered the most stringent protective measures of any nation on the Continent, and had announced them so promptly that they appeared in the same newspapers that were informing most Italians for the first time of the arrival of "la nube," or the Chernobyl cloud. Experience told me that Italians rarely agree quickly to do anything, and although I was grateful to be prevented from eating contaminated food, the very efficiency of the ban disturbed me. Perhaps, as some people suggested, the government was overcompensating for the recent "poisoned wine" scandal in which it was widely perceived that a number of the twenty or so deaths could have been prevented if the government had taken prompter action.

Hoping that I was overreacting, I bought two dusty (and thus pre-Chernobyl) twelve-liter cases of long-life milk for my daughter. (Long-life milk, popular in Europe, can be kept unrefrigerated for about four months.) My husband and I decided that we would keep our daughter indoors, with the windows closed, for at least a week—not an easy thing for a two-year-old to accept in May. No one had suggested such a precaution to us. We were merely assuming, because pediatricians were advising against allowing young children to play on grass, that, for now, the less "fresh air" our daughter had, the better.

Although we were living in an increasingly nuclear-powered world, we had also been living in ignorance of the nature of radiation. I did not know that the estimates of the tolerance of humans to radiation exposure, originally based on the effects of Hiroshima, are now thought by many radiologists to be at least twice as high as they should be. I did not know that one person might be two or three times as sensitive to the same dose of radiation as another person, or that radioactive elements have different effects, depending on what part of the body absorbs them and how quickly they are excreted.

The newspapers provided some of the information that, I suddenly felt, I should have known already: that iodine comes in a radioactive form, iodine 131, which is often the principal component of nuclear-reactor leaks and which has the relatively brief half-life of eight days. I learned that iodine 131 causes thyroid cancer, that it is readily absorbed by green plants, and, therefore, that it is found in the milk of grass-eating animals. I learned that cesium 137, with a half-life of thirty years, settles especially in muscle tissue and organs, and that strontium 90, with a half-life of twenty-eight years, settles in bones and so can cause bone-marrow cancer.

Almost everyone I knew in Rome had learned at least some of these facts within a few days—a few days not after we learned of the Chernobyl disaster but after we learned that la nube had passed over us.

EVEN ALLOWING FOR the human tendency to be most interested in whatever immediately affects us, I was surprised at how little news American sources were providing. I was disappointed, for instance, that the International Herald Tribune, which is published in Paris and serves more readers of English than any other newspaper on the Continent, devoted little space to Chernobyl after the most "explosive" news was over. And, like other newspapers in France, it did not initially question the French government's claim of national exemption from Chernobyl's effects. Meanwhile, some American magazines minimized the fallout, erroneously arguing that the doses of radiation Western Europeans received from Chernobyl were no larger than those resulting from several chest x-rays. Other publications, while justifiably focusing on the damage to Soviet and Eastern European citizens, seemed to dismiss the worries of Germans and Belgians and Austrians and Frenchmen and Italians, whose soil would be contaminated for decades, as a comical anxiety over whether or not to make a salad. "Let them eat cake," they seemed to be saying.

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