A Mother's Account of Dealing with Chernobyl's Fallout

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Though the danger of a complete nuclear meltdown at the Japanese nuclear reactors appears to be abating, small amounts of radiation have been detected in the Tokyo water supply, according to the Japanese government. The announcement is a reminder that nuclear disasters do not go away quickly or easily.

energy_bug_1.pngAfter the world's worst nuclear disaster, Chernobyl, a cloud of radioactivity spread across Europe in the days following the April 26, 1986 accident. Information about the distribution and abundance of radioactive particles in different countries was hard to come by. Misinformation abounded and government officials struggled with how much information to release. Given the novelty of the situation, people worried about the unknown unknowns.

Mary Jo Salter, a Johns Hopkins writing professor and former Atlantic editor, was living in Rome with her husband and daughter. They tried hard to find and track the news about radioactivity. They went beyond the government's recommendations about not drinking milk or eating certain vegetables. And yet an irreducible fear remained. Salter's family left Rome after they gave up on trying to live with the fallout.

Here's the conclusion to her story, which originally ran in the January 1987 issue of The Atlantic:

By June 3, the day of the new milk ban in the north, my husband and I had joined the unjustified alarmists, and had given our landlord notice that we would be leaving Italy within a month. We had plenty of reasons to be chastising ourselves. If the food, air, and soil in Italy had really been dangerous enough to justify our private evacuation, then we should have made it earlier. Instead, we had spent weeks acquiring the rudiments of the vocabulary we needed in order to ask the right questions. And we appeared to be leaving Italy just as it was becoming--especially in Rome, where almost no rain had fallen since Chernobyl--a much safer place to live. The government claimed that its ban on vegetables and milk had reduced by two thirds the probable future incidence of "extra" cancers in Italy. And we had imposed on ourselves a far stricter diet than the government had ever suggested.

First Person Bug.jpgNot only our daughter but also my husband and I had given up all fresh dairy products on May 2, and we would not eat them again for nearly two months. We ate only those fresh vegetables and fruits that can be peeled, such as potatoes, carrots, eggplant, apples, and bananas. Although most strawberries in Italy are grown in greenhouses, we--like many other people--decided not to eat them, because we couldn't be sure where they had come from. When we read that young meats such as veal and Spring lamb might register higher levels of radioactivity, we gave them up too. We ate frozen spinach until we learned that contaminated greens were being recycled. We relied heavily on fish (except freshwater fish) and chicken: poultry was all right, the newspaper assured us, as long as it had "been raised on uncontaminated, stored feed." But how on earth were we to know? In Italy, once an eater's paradise, we felt as limited in our choice of foods as if we had lived in, say, Russia, before Chernobyl. This was definitely not la dolce vita.

Yet, having imposed such restrictions on ourselves, we were probably as safe as anyone in Italy, and could easily have stayed on, eventually adding the formerly restricted foods to our diet and restricting ourselves on new ones--like next year's beef and next year's grain. Grain ... pasta. The thought of pasta, that quintessentially Italian staple, being tainted was so depressing that one could almost see the reasoning behind--if not the decency of--keeping figures on radioactivity secret.

I cannot say that I left Rome because the information I received convinced me that my child's remaining there was dangerous. No expert on radiation or on Italian politics, I was a foreign resident doing my best to interpret the information that was available from Italian news sources at the time. I left largely because the information that had trickled down from the Italian government was so piecemeal, tardy, hard-won, and sometimes provably erroneous that I had not been convinced that my child was not in danger. And I am still not convinced. As recently as October, La Repubblica reported that two independent sources warned of the continuing contamination of food in Italy--and implicitly raised the question of the quality of food elsewhere in Europe. Nuova Ecologia, an environmentalist monthly, concluded from its own research that certain grains, meats, fish, and mushrooms in the north of Italy remain highly radioactive. And researchers at the University of Milan found that the powdered milk in various baby formulas being sold in Italy was so "significantly contaminated by cesium as to require an "urgent intervention by health authorities."

One can live with moderate fallout indefinitely in total ignorance. Knowing that one is living with it can--in certain people, at least--lead to a despair not only about the health of one's children but also about the future of the human race. If that is the "nuclear psychosis," I still have it.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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