Rad Storm Rising

A ghastly tour of a land of radioactive sausage, poisoned onions, and bald children

The consequences of Chernobyl remain the single most significant radiation-pollution problem in the USSR, but the obstacles to decontaminating the affected portions of the country are so formidable that it is doubtful that the Soviet Union will ever be able to make much progress in this area. The United States has its own serious pollution problems connected with nuclear-weapons manufacturing, and the steep estimates for the cleanup costs suggest why a Soviet cleanup is unlikely. The U.S. Department of Energy and Congress calculate that to tidy up our nuclear-weapons-manufacturing pollution mess will cost from $100 billion to $200 billion, a sum on the order of our budget deficit for fiscal year 1989. The Soviet Union, whose radiation-pollution problems are by all accounts far more extensive than ours, suffers from a far larger budget shortfall, which as a percentage of GNP dwarfs the deficit of the United States. Beyond balancing the budget, there are other claimants to the USSR's scarce resources. The Soviet Union's rickety industrial infrastructure cries out for a cash infusion. Mikhail Gorbachev's attempt to restructure his country's anarchic planned economy is draining away even more funds in exchange for much-heralded but thus far indiscernible returns.

Even in the improbable event that the resources required for combating its environmental woes miraculously materialized, the Soviet Union's radiation-pollution problems would be competing for cleanup with other, more conventional ecological fiascoes, the deleterious health and economic effects of which may exceed, at least in the short term, those that stem from radiation. The Aral Sea is evaporating from misguided irrigation policies; as a result, sandstorms full of salt and chemical fertilizers blow across Central Asia, causing the blossoming of a luxurious bouquet of diseases. Air and water pollution at extraordinary levels is now characteristic of the Soviet industrial landscape and in some cities has reached nightmarish science-fiction dimensions.

In Kirishi women complain that they are covered with scabs caused by exposure to toxic chemicals from a single-cell protein factory. In Sverdlovsk ninety-three students out of a group from Urals State University summoned to help with the onion harvest subsequently collapsed from "pain in their joints." Doctors determined that they were suffering from "mass illnesses of the peripheral nervous system." The soil from which they had pulled the onions was found to contain chemical and pesticide concentrations ranging from 20 to 120 times the permitted levels. The Soviet report notes that schoolchildren "were also affected."

About 300 children fell ill with stomach cramps and hallucinations and then lost their hair in the Ukrainian city of Chernovtsy in the autumn of 1988. According to Moscow News, the illness triggered an exodus from the city, in which parents, desperate to send their offspring to safety, "stormed the railway station, besieged the airport, and battled to get a seat on a bus." In all, 40,000 children were sent away. Whatever its etiology, the affliction known in the USSR today as the "chemical disease" has not disappeared. Although no cases of complete baldness have been reported in Chernovtsy since November of 1988, a "softer, weakened" version of the illness caused at least 220 children and fifty-one adults in the city to become partly bald in 1989. The "chemical disease" has also appeared in other locations.

With such dramatic health problems mounting, there is no reason to believe that the fight against radiation will or even should receive the highest priority.

In contrast with most ordinary industrial pollutants, many of which are easily detectable by sight and smell, radiation pollution is invisible, as are its health effects over the short term. It is rarely possible to trace any particular case of illness to radiation, unless the exposure dosage is quite substantial. There is general agreement that counting the additional cancers that can be expected as a result of radiation exposure is a statistical art that remains inexact. "Errors in the calculations will certainly be very large," says the biophysicist Dmitri Grodzinsky, a member of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. Given the constraints on Soviet resources, the range of problems that demand urgent attention, and the possibility that radiation-induced health effects will prove to be both modest and far in the future, it would not be surprising if the authorities made only limited efforts to clean up, and let the population learn to live with the elevated levels of radiation.

The picture of Soviet efforts that emerges from a review of the evidence increasingly suggests that this is the direction in which the authorities have opted, or are being driven by circumstances, to move. On the one hand, in some of the most severely affected regions trees and houses are still being washed, roads asphalted, and radioactive soil buried. Evacuations of villages that have been found to have especially high levels of radiation continue. On the other hand, in Belorussia, where a fifth of the land was contaminated by the Chernobyl accident, reports from Soviet journalists and statements from officials and scientists indicate that in many cases the authorities have simply opted to wave a white flag at the invisible and uncertain danger.

The Soviet cleanup has largely focused on decontaminating settlements; contaminated farmland continues to be exploited. Radioactively contaminated fields are being worked with ordinary tractors, because in the three years since Chernobyl, according to the first deputy chairman of the Belorussian Council of Ministers, only 825 tractors with "hermetically sealed cabs" have been delivered, "which is several times less than needed. Indeed, those are without air filters." Three leading Soviet physicians, writing in Pravda, report that "there is an absolutely inadequate number of agricultural machines with airtight cabins, there are few special clothes ... there is a shortage of showers.... The result of these defects is additional dosages and the carrying of radioactive matter into living accommodations."

Because contaminated farmland remains in use, the safety of the food supply continues to be a subject of official concern and a source of widespread public anxiety. "For the last two or three months before they are slaughtered, animals must be fed 'clean fodder,"' A. Gulyayev, a correspondent for the newspaper Selskaya Zhizn, suggests. The military journal Voyennye Znaniya instructs its readers that for "cattle and pigs being fattened, as well as draft animals, feeds with a content of cesium-137 and strontium-90 may be given, but only when concentrations are no higher than those set for a daily ration." These animals should be fed only "pure" feeds in the two to four weeks before they are slaughtered, because "in this period the amount of strontium-90 and cesium-137 in the muscle tissue decreases significantly." One problem is that "dirty" cattle are allowed to graze in "clean" areas. As a consequence, "more and more land is becoming contaminated through their dung." Another problem, according to the biophysicist Grodzinsky, is with "hundreds of thousands of ducks" that have appeared in the restricted-access Chernobyl zone. They fly off "to the most varied places." But it is "not desirable for the population to eat radioactive game," he notes drily. Grodzinsky has suggested that everyone be equipped with dosimetric devices, like "the Japanese who go to the market with counters and measure the radioactivity of cabbage and fish." The scientist believes that at present "there is a strong probability of an unmonitored contaminated agricultural product ending up on the table."

One choice contaminated item making its way to table is mushrooms, a delicacy with a special propensity to absorb radiation. From 1986 to 1988 the sale of dried mushrooms grown in the highly contaminated Narodichi area of the Ukraine increased more than sevenfold, from 1.3 tons a year to 9.4 tons. These mushrooms are sold in Zaporozhye, in the Crimea, and in the Krasnodar area. In Novosibirsk radiation-detection devices in a laboratory were activated when laboratory workers made tea. The tea had been sold as a blend of Georgian and Indian tea, but was found to be "a blend of Georgian tea plus." Among its ingredients were cesium-137 and cesium-134, which had been deposited on a Georgia tea plantation in 1986 by the Chernobyl cloud. According to Vasil Yakovenko, a member of the Belorussian Communist Party's Central Committee, refrigerated meat lockers at meat combines in Belorussia are "stuffed with 'dirty' 1986-vintage carcasses," and "tens of thousands of tons of this dangerous meat" have been used as a food additive. Officials concede that from August of 1986 to March of 1989 "meat contaminated with cesium" from heavily irradiated areas near Chernobyl was shipped to Yaroslavl, where it was sold to an unwitting public. Eight hundred tons of this radioactive meat was diluted "in various proportions" with clean meat and boiled into "radioactive sausage." The Ministry of Health approved this process, but classified all documents pertaining to the meat as "official use only."

Some of the radioactive meat and produce is allowed to spoil. But it is a "crime" to allow meat contaminated with cesium to rot, says Dmitri Popov, who is identified in the Soviet press as a "major authority in the country" on radioactive fallout. Such meat could be "processed according to the recommended technology, diluted with clean meat and components, and put on the worker's table." The scientist is also upset that potatoes are being wasted. Moscow recently turned away an entire freight train full of this staple when radiation instruments "went off scale" while the potatoes were measured. Last year, Popov says, Moscow went without potatoes because of such "ignorance," but things are improving. "It took a great deal of effort on our part to prove that the cesium content in potatoes was practically zero. The dirt simply has to be washed off, as every housewife does, before peeling the potato."

Civil-defense authorities are assisting in the purification of the food supply by publishing simple instructions on how to treat food exposed to fallout from a nuclear accident before consuming it. Meat, cheese, butter, and cottage cheese should be "deactivated by removing the upper layer to a depth of not less than 2 to 3 millimeters." Fish, vegetables, and fruit must be washed with a "stream of water, and if necessary cut off the outer layer." Milk should be "thoroughly boiled and it can be made into cottage cheese (during preparation and storage a natural decline in the radioactivity occurs)." Other liquids, like vegetable oil, "can be deactivated by letting them stand (3 to 5 days)."

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