Living With Fallout

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

A specialist measures the radioactivity of freight cars full of contaminated milk powder (Peter Meyer / AP)

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.

Theoretically, the best source for Italian news ought to have been Italian newspapers. The one I read most regularly, Il Messaggero, gave generally excellent coverage of the continuing local problems stemming from Chernobyl, as did many of Italy's other dailies. All of them reported that Italy's air-radiation levels on May 2 had been measured at about twice "background," or normal. My daughter's pediatrician told me that this was nothing to be concerned about. Indeed, he said, he wouldn't give radiation in Italy another thought until levels reached ten times background.) Then, on May 9, the papers offered a correction of the previous week's data. Under a headline that read, "THE SKY BY NOW IS 'CLEAN'—BUT THE FIRST OF MAY IS FEARED A TRUE DISASTER," Il Messaggero revealed that "the radioactivity in northern Italy, in the data of May 2, wasn't twice background, but, on the contrary, one hundred times." The director of the Atmospheric Physics Institute (IFA) angrily denied that it had ever provided incorrect figures. Rather, the IFA had been one source of data for the sole body in Italy authorized to release information on radioactivity, the Civil Protection Agency. This agency had arrived at its reassuring figure of twice background by averaging the high radioactivity levels of the north with those of the central and southern regions. The Civil Protection Agency's director defended himself by arguing that the authorities in Sweden, Austria, and Switzerland had also averaged regional data.

The great variation in radiation levels, not only across Europe's close national borders but also within countries, had important implications for the many of us who hoped to evaluate Chernobyl's potential for damage to our own families. We would not be able to rely on the apparently logical generalization that greater distance from the accident meant greater safety. We learned that a number of other factors—such as topography, water currents, and incidence of rainfall—can make a tremendous difference. Only continuing local measurement of radioactive elements in the air, in the soil, and in food would be of much use to the public. In Italy the north was doubly unfortunate, being both the region closest to Chernobyl and the only one in the country experiencing heavy rainfall in May. Newspaper reports differed about how bad the news was in the north, but they all agreed that its soil and its food were generally the most contaminated in the country.

On May 11—this time buried in a middle paragraph on page 3—Il Messaggero carried a clarification of the background-radiation discrepancy that I found more disturbing than the May 9 headline. Scientists from the IFA and from the ENEA—the state atomic-energy commission, closely related to the Civil Protection Agency—made a joint statement that the data they had supplied were not contradictory. The IFA's "one hundred times background" referred only to beta radiation in the air, while the ENEA's "twice background" referred to the augmentation of total radioactivity. Il Messaggero did not explain how this new interpretation related to its previous statement that the discrepancy had resulted from averaging regional figures on radiation.

While these baffling interagency battles were being fought in Italy, international battles on safety standards were being fought in the European Community. France threatened to block a ban on meat imports from Eastern Europe unless Italy abandoned its demand that all food imports from Eastern and Western European countries alike bear guarantees of safety. As Europe's leading exporter of fresh produce, Italy—which was losing some $3 million daily in revenues on the produce it had volunteered to ban domestically—understandably wanted the burden of such sacrifices to be as fairly distributed as possible. Clearly, although safety was the primary issue for the EC, it was not the only issue. West Germany managed to have East Germany removed from the list of Eastern European countries from which meat imports were banned, by arguing, according to the International Herald Tribune, that "radioactivity levels monitored in West Berlin give a good indication of the level of pollution in East Germany." Reporters for the London Observer, who were later to publish a book about Chernobyl, The Worst Accident in the World, interpreted that "good indication" of pollution this way: "East Germany, although it was just as vulnerable to radioactive contamination [as other Eastern European countries], was mysteriously omitted from the list at the insistence of West Germany, which values its trading links with its eastern counterpart." As the Observer reporters noted, the technical reason for East Germany's omission was that it lies more than 1,000 kilometers from Chernobyl. Yet Austria, which lies partly inside the 1,000 kilometer limit, escaped the ban as well.

Internationally conflicting standards for radiation limits in food, most set long before Chernobyl, were also making any objective appraisal of the damage extremely difficult. Only when the World Health Organization published a report on Chernobyl late in May did ordinary citizens discover just how widely the guidelines varied. Nor did they vary along easily predictable lines.

The rate at which radioactive emissions occur is measured by most countries in becquerels (or bq). Allowable limits of radiation in milk, for instance, were high in Eastern-bloc countries (1,000 bq per liter in Czechoslovakia and Poland), but two of the countries that shared the highest limit, 2,000 bq per liter, were Bulgaria and Sweden. (That fact is even more surprising when one considers that, following a 1980 referendum, Sweden committed itself to phasing out its nuclear reactors—which currently provide more than 30 percent of its electricity—by the year 2010.) Many countries, including the United States and Italy, set limits at about 500 bq per liter, but one of the most protective limits, 200 bq per liter, was set by Finland, which was widely suspected of having publicly minimized the contamination it had suffered from Chernobyl.

All of these limits are far below any level that would lead to acute radiation sickness. As the WHO report observed, and scientists generally agree, an exposure threshold exists for acute radiation sickness but not for other effects of radiation. These include mental retardation of fetuses; genetic defects, which may appear in one or two generations; and cancer. Even the slightest additional exposure to radiation increases one's chances of incurring such effects, and among the questions implicit in the varying "allowable" radiation limits is how many extra cancers a government is prepared to accept as likely before it orders protective measures or evacuation.

Inevitably, given the complexity of the information and the intensity of the fears Chernobyl was unleashing, a number of adaptive psychological strategies emerged. Some people were especially frightened of radiation's effects precisely because these were invisible. Others seemed truly to believe that what you can't see can't hurt you. Indeed, some suggested that the greatest danger radiation poses is psychological. As demonstrations calling for a nuclear shutdown in Italy drew impressive crowds, the Corriere della Sera commented: "Paradoxically, the nuclear psychosis seems to be greater in those countries where there are fewer reactors, especially in Italy, where only three are in operation." And, manifesting another philosophy closely related to the disdain of "nuclear psychosis," La Repubblica commented that a "colossal disinformation" and "propaganda" campaign in the United States "corresponded" to the Soviets' handling of the disaster. The most reliable index of how fearful—or at least uncertain—most people remained was provided at the marketplace: the wholesale prices of produce, including fruits and vegetables that had never been banned, were on some days down by as much as 50 percent.

Perhaps if the levels of ground radiation in the north of Italy had not remained stubbornly high for weeks, and even suddenly and mysteriously risen in June, the government's original two-week ban on vegetables and milk would have seemed prudent enough. After all, Italy had applied stringent immediate controls on its own food; it had even restricted imports from other European Community members until they had agreed to meet higher health standards. Yet, as Il Messaggero reported in early May, readings specifically breaking down the amounts of cesium, cobalt, and strontium in the environment were being supplied to the Civil Protection Agency but were not being made public. "Now would be the time," the article said, "to know with certainty in what degree vegetables, milk, and rainwater remain contaminated by these elements."

The newspaper to raise the question of public disclosure most loudly and most often, however, was The International Courier, the only English daily newspaper published in Italy at the time. (It closed down, unfortunately, later in the summer, and had it done so before Chernobyl, I am sure that many foreign residents in Italy would never have known the extent to which the accident had touched their lives.) Two reporters, Kate Casa and William McCaughey, continued throughout May and into June to write front-page stories on the effects of Chernobyl in Europe, and particularly in northern Italy. They repeatedly pointed out that the single element for which the Italian government was releasing specific readings was iodine 131—which had originally been the greatest component of Chernobyl's fallout. But iodine 131, which has an eight-day half-life, was also the component quickest to fade away. Government officials argued that as soon as levels of iodine 131 returned to somewhere near normal, Chernobyl's potential danger for Italy was at an end. The government's initially alarming two-week ban on iodine-absorbing greens and milk began to seem not only a necessary precaution but also a psychologically astute way of forestalling public concern about the contamination of vegetables, grain, meat, and other foods by elements with half-lives decades long. On May 15 the International Courier reported that the ENEA had refused to release figures on levels of cesium and strontium in food. But without specific data, how were citizens to be reassured that the safety standards that Italy was demanding of other countries were being met domestically?

On May 16 the Courier reported interviewing some anonymous scientists at the ENEA about the organization's failure to release data on cesium. "Contact the universities," one of them advised. "They are not restrained the way we are." Another said, "We are charged by the state to elaborate whatever data they want us to." The next day, May 17, Casa and McCaughey reported that a "reliable government source" had divulged to the Lega Ambiente, or Environmental League, some disturbing information: in vegetables harvested in the north of Italy on May 12, levels of cesium 137 were 60 percent above those allowed by Italian law. Faced with explaining the damaging data, the ENEA and the Civil Protection Agency—both government institutions—each referred reporters to the other organization.

Ironically, May 17 was also the day that the Italian government declared all vegetables safe and legally marketable. It decided, however, to extend by one week the ban on consumption of milk by pregnant women and children. The Minister of Agriculture offered the explanation that "we have chosen to put health above everything else." But when Casa and McCaughey again questioned the withholding of figures on cesium, a Civil Protection Agency spokesman replied, "What do you want with those figures? By now the damage is done. Whatever cesium there was has been absorbed into our bodies. We'll see the long-term effects only after many years."

On May 18, the day after Italians happily returned to their greengrocers, newspapers around the country reported another environmental setback. The Alps were registering high levels of radioactivity. "Polluted ice, greatly contaminated wildlife," lamented Il Messaggero. "The eastern Alps, from Friuli to Lombardy, risk spending the next few months under the threat of an environmental catastrophe." Scientists feared the eventual contamination of drinking water. The northern province of Bolzano closed all hunting reserves, advised the destruction of the livers of animals already caught (because the liver and other soft organs absorb cesium), and recommended waiting two months before eating the animals' meat. Meanwhile, one of Italy's largest long-life-milk manufacturers was under questioning for allegedly having falsified the production dates stamped on milk cartons. Milk that was ostensibly "pre-Chernobyl" had been registering suspiciously high levels of iodine 131.

Yet the milk scandal was soon upstaged. The Ministry of Agriculture, which, because it "put health above everything else," had just recommended that the government extend the milk ban, now announced that much of the milk supposedly destroyed had actually been reserved for a fifteen-day holding period and was being recycled as long-life milk and yogurt. We had seen photographs of piles of boxes of green vegetables at "destruction centers," but many green vegetables, we now learned, had also been saved and were to be sold frozen, now that their iodine 131 content was substantially reduced. (Several days before, health officials in southern Germany had seemed to be preparing for just such a contingency when they banned the consumption of imported frozen vegetables by children.) "We're trying to throw out as little as possible and reutilize as much as possible," a Ministry of Agriculture spokesman said.

Then, on May 24, Prime Minister Bettino Craxi made a declaration that implied that a kind of peace treaty had been signed with radioactivity. "The situation has returned to normal," he announced. "In facing a new situation we were very prudent.... But permit me to observe that today there is no reason to be more prudent than prudence itself." He criticized the "unjustified alarmism" of those who continued to advise against buying certain foods, and he lifted the final ban on milk. His declaration was, of course, front-page news in all Italian newspapers. But the International Courier—which most Italians had never read, and which was not always available outside Rome—gave greater space to a World Health Organization report on the effects of Chernobyl upon Europe. Italian data on the levels of various radioactive substances was conspicuously spotty. The government labeled the international report "confidential" and refused to release its contents immediately, adding that it was being held for "a few days" for "minor typographical corrections." After more than a week a Ministry of Health spokesman announced a plan to "publish the report in its entirety, prefaced by comments of a panel of experts." "This is a document written for experts in scientific terms," he said, and he added the apparently calming reassurance that levels of cesium would become less "significant" in about sixty days. But the fallout was merely dispersing—not disappearing.

Those who actually read them found that the "confidential" conclusions of the WHO report were generally, if guardedly, optimistic: "Based on [UN] assessments of the consequences of the nuclear fallout, the cesium contamination outside the USSR is not likely to cause any serious problems. However, since cesium 137 dominates the long-term exposure, it will not be possible to assess the overall impact ... unless the distribution of cesium 137 deposition is better known."

At least one Italian was reading the Courier: Francesco Rutelli, the chairman of the Radical Party caucus in the Chamber of Deputies, who announced on May 27 that on the basis of the newspaper's disclosures he was initiating a parliamentary investigation into why the Ministry of Health had delayed release of the WHO document and refused to release the levels of any radioactive element other than iodine 131. Meanwhile the Courier reported a grave inconsistency in data once again. A spokesman at the ENEA claimed that cesium had "never" been higher anywhere in Italy than two nanocuries per liter of milk and ten nanocuries per kilogram of vegetables. (Italy measures radiation not in becquerels but in nanocuries, one of which is equal to thirty-seven becquerels.) But, as the Courier went on, a confidential May 19 ENEA report shows cesium 137 rose to 24.3 nanocuries per kilogram in northern Italian leafy vegetables on one day alone, May 9. Italian law sets cesium warning levels at 20 nanocuries for a full year for adults, and 6.6 nanocuries over the same period for children under 5 years.

While refusing to comment further, a spokesman for the Prime Minister admitted that Craxi had had access to the May 19 report before declaring that the situation had returned to normal.

Although the emergency was over as far as the national government was concerned, not all communities agreed, and soon another embarrassing contradiction to Craxi's claim came to light. On June 3 four communities in the northern province of Lombardy announced that ground readings of cesium 137 had measured up to five times as high as those in mid-May (which themselves had been high, having been made after the Chernobyl cloud's arrival). The communities reinstated the milk ban and ordered the slaughter of all rabbits (rabbit meat is a popular food in northern Italy). The local health agency in Como "invited" citizens to refrain from eating chicken, rabbits, or the eggs of fowl that feed on vegetation. The Minister of Health, Costante Degan, claimed that the upsurge of radioactivity was probably caused by an increase in rainfall and was a purely "local phenomenon." His statement may well have been accurate, but it could not make any safer the milk, vegetables, chicken, and eggs that had been consumed in Lombardy since May 24, when the Prime Minister had declared the situation normal. And if rain could produce such great increases in contamination, Craxi's exhortation to resume normal eating habits may indeed have been hasty. Many individuals and organizations, including at least one labor union, declared that what was needed was a more effective system of information and protection, beginning, above all, with the separation of those institutions that acquire and interpret data on radioactivity from those charged with producing and promoting nuclear power.

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.

Not 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.