Chernobyl’s Food Contamination
Radionuclides showered farms, grazing lands, forests and waterways in a wide and uneven path north and west of the site of the Chernobyl nuclear explosion. Ten years after the catastrophe, studies have still not yielded a clear picture of the dimensions of the radioactive contamination of land and water that affects food production. Moreover, there is no certainty about the corrosive influences of eating radioactive food over time. Medical specialists anticipate that eating food polluted by radioactive fallout may contribute to incidences of cancer as well as impaired reproductive systems, but accurate measurements depend on the food itself and its absorption of particular radioactive isotopes, tillage and food processing techniques, food quantities ingested and cooking methods, combinations of foods, and idiosyncratic resistance to the influences of carcinogens. It is unlikely that a definitive portrait of the impact of the Chernobyl catastrophe on food will emerge, but current information paints a picture of food contamination in eastern and northern Europe that may take generations to repair.
CROPS AND ANIMAL PRODUCTS
Radioactive particles fell directly on crops and animals as a result of the initial explosion, ensuing fire, precipitation and wind. Soil absorbed high quantities of a variety of radionuclides making very fertile topsoil unsafe for crops. The most important radionuclides affecting food after the nuclear reactor accident are iodine 131, cesium 137, cesium 134, strontium 90. Concentrations of cesium were found to be higher in wild animals than in domesticated ones where Prussian Blue boli was introduced into the feed to decontaminate cows. In the days after the explosion, thousands of prime commercial cattle were slaughtered in Ukraine and Belarus.
Restrictions had been placed on animal products in some European countries including hundreds of thousands of British sheep, as well as sheep and reindeer in Scandinavia. In the United Kingdom the radioactive plume from Chernobyl deposited mostly very mobile cesium isotopes from May 4-6, 1986. Most of these isotopes were taken up by grazing animals. Currently the total number of livestock still restricted is under 400,000, mostly in Scotland and the mountains of Wales. As measured in males, cesium 137 levels reached a peak over a year after the nuclear accident in late 1987 due to the consumption of contaminated foods. Since then, cesium 137 contamination of soils has been declining slowly. However, this decrease has occurred unevenly and continues to depend on the degree and kind of initial contamination.
In Belarus, the nation most tainted by Chernobyl fallout and once considered part of the “Bread Basket” of the former Soviet Union, one-quarter of the arable land is no longer habitable. The soil in the region surrounding the city of Gomel, Belarus, 70 miles north of the Chernobyl nuclear station, still holds most of the radionuclides which fell on it ten years ago.
FOREST PRODUCTS AND WILDLIFE
Fruits, vegetables and animals populating forests absorbed higher concentrations of radionuclides than agricultural lands because of the filtering qualities of trees. People who relied on wild game, berries and mushrooms, increased concentrations of radionuclides in their bodies to dangerous proportions. Mushrooms tended to contain high levels of cesium. Forest workers were particularly vulnerable to radioactive exposure receiving doses estimated to be three times higher than others living in the same region. Employees in forest-based industries such as pulp, paper production and logging suffered similar heightened exposure. The waste products from these industries added to the sources of radionuclides polluting the affected regions. There is no certain time after which forests will be free of the radioactive impact from Chernobyl.
DRINKING WATER AND WATER ECOSYSTEMS
There is a danger that strontium 90 could contaminate drinking water 10 to 100 years from the time of the nuclear explosion in the most severely contaminated areas. Contamination of sediment could slowly seep into water systems. Already, there is some evidence that this may be occurring in the regions most directly contaminated by Chernobyl. Outside the former USSR, lakes and fish remain contaminated above levels acceptable for commercial use. About 15% of the lakes in Sweden, or about 14,000 lakes, were contaminated with radioactive cesium by 1987. However, the safety of fish depends on the type of fish and lakes, and it is only now in some instances that fish and lakes are viable again. In other cases, contaminated lake fish will continue to be a long-term problem.
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