Rad Storm Rising

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

Soviet authorities have advertised equipment that the public can use to protect itself from the ubiquitous radiation, but there are complaints that these devices are not available. One top-of-the-line weapon in the defensive radiation war is the KZD-4, an "infant protective chamber." The KZD-4 is the "basic unit of individual defense" for children from birth to one and a half years of age. It comes equipped with a viewing window that permits "oversight of the behavior of the child." The chamber can be mounted "on the chassis of a baby stroller" or on a sled, for winter use, or it can be carried in the arms.

A military textbook intended for middle-school students concludes with a chapter on civil defense, which includes instructions on fitting cows and other livestock with cloth masks to prevent them from grazing on radioactive grass in zones that have been contaminated by nuclear attack or accident. Sewing plans are included. Younger students are given simpler tasks. According to a description of the latest curriculum reform, students in the second through sixth grades are now taught "to adapt their everyday clothing and shoes to protect their skin from radioactive dust."

Soldiers on duty in contaminated areas are issued respirators to protect them from radioactive dust. The Lepestok-200 "breathing apparatus" is standard issue, but it has proved unreliable. It conforms poorly to the face, and "radioactive dust is drawn through the cracks." Specialists examined ten respirators that had been worn by soldiers guarding the Chernobyl nuclear station. Three were discovered to have a radioactive element on their interior surfaces. And even if the soldiers had had adequate gas masks, radioactive particles might accumulate in the masks' filters, making them a "source of radiation carried at the soldier's side." But there is good news as well. Servicemen engaged in cleanup activities in the Chernobyl area are to be guaranteed "shielded living accommodations" and will receive transfers to a region of their choice in which to continue their term of service.

Despite the shortcomings of the gas masks, civil-defense authorities have come under criticism for failing to make masks and other protective devices available to the civilian population. "Why are dosimeters, gas masks, and other individual protective equipment not freely available for sale?" a reader of the mass-circulation weekly Argumenty i Fakty asked. In the journal Voyennye-Znaniya the public received an answer: to issue such equipment free of charge to the entire population would be too expensive, and to sell it would be inequitable. The typical family of four requires "two adult gas masks, one children's and one infant's protective chamber," which together cost more than 100 rubles—half a month's salary for the average worker. Young families with several children and a low income would not be able to afford this, "so we can only be talking about a free issue." However, the Politburo has announced that 100,000 radiation dosimeters will soon go on sale to the public.

Paradoxically, the reports of contaminated food and discussions of radiation-proof baby strollers may themselves be having a deleterious effect on health which, at least in the short term, exceeds the direct consequences of the radiation exposure. The first secretary of the Kiev Communist Party reported to the Politburo that "mass psychosis" had gripped the inhabitants of the Polessky and Ivankovsky areas, adjacent to the Chernobyl zone. He attributed the outbreak to the activities of an extremist movement of "unqualified individual groups" that is "fueling rumors" in an effort to close the reactors still in operation at Chernobyl.

But Soviet medical authorities attribute the hysteria to another cause. They describe a new and widespread psychological disorder, "radiophobia," that has infected the population. In Pravda, Soviet doctors have offered a definition of radiophobia as "an increased psycho-emotional reaction to a real or imagined danger of radiation," and among its consequences, a Belorussian journalist has written, "are psychological stresses and the rejection of vegetative foods." Popov, the radiation scientist, says, "The only special medical treatment the population here is in need of is psychotherapy." The biophysicist Grodzinsky has reported that as a result of radiophobia, "many people have in general ceased to eat greens, fearing radiation. This is completely mistaken. Radiation affects a vitamin-deprived organism more intensely." Because of the widespread fears, Grodzinsky says, "some people who are mentally unstable have decided that for them 'life has ended,' and they have died. Others have let go in revelry and still others have fallen into depression.... Medical personnel should expect an increase in the number of nervous illnesses, heart attacks, cases of hypertension." Soviet television has shown some of the victims of radiophobia: a female resident of the hard-hit Gomel oblast asks Yegor Ligachev, a visiting Politburo member, "Tell me, please, how are we supposed to live? We are afraid of the water; we are afraid of the sun; we are afraid of the grass; we are afraid of the soil.... How can we go on living?"

A decade ago one of the leading Western experts on Soviet energy technology, in contemplating the Soviet disinclination to invest in nuclear-safety measures, wrote that "we might think of Soviet nuclear power policy as a kind of experiment inflicted on the Russian people that we would not choose to risk ourselves, but from which we can greatly benefit if the experiment is a success." Thanks to glasnost, the results of the experiment are beginning to come in, and they are entirely unambiguous. We are now also watching the progress of a follow-up experiment, one that, again, we would not choose to risk ourselves. The USSR, in particular its European part, has become an enormous laboratory in which the impact of radiation pollution on the economy, the politics, and the health of a society is being vividly demonstrated to the world.

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