6. The Contamination of Foodstuffs

Chapter 2: Soviet Union
Part 2: Chernobyl Three Years After

The gravest cause of concern for health authorities in the Ukraine and Belorussiya is the absorption of large amounts of iodine-131 and cesium-137 into the body. Although iodine-131 has a short half-life of eight days, it accumulates in the thyroid gland, generating hypothyroidism and causing cancer. It is particularly dangerous for children. Cesium-137 has a half-life of thirty years and, when absorbed into the muscles, can cause cancer. Both iodine-131 and cesium-137 may be readily absorbed into the body through the small intestine from contaminated food. The radiation released into the atmosphere may gradually decrease over time, but absorbed by plants from the soil and water, then by animals and finally humans, radiation leaves its legacy in the food chain, and thus in the bodies of human beings.

In Kiev we decided to visit a marketplace to see if the accident at Chernobyl had had any effect on the supply of foodstuffs.

Zuitoni market is one of the many which supply the kitchens of this city of 2.4 million. When we arrived there was a line of shoppers spilling out onto the pavement. Making our way through the crowd, we walked round to the back entrance and entered a room marked "Testing Room," to find a woman in a laboratory coat absorbed in testing food samples. This was Rjabov Kulbrik, head of hygiene inspection at Zuitoni market. Pointing to the vegetables and dairy products on the table, she told us that all foodstuffs had to be checked and then stamped with an "edible" mark before they could be sold at the market.

Before the accident at Chernobyl, her main tasks were to check the processing dates on dairy products, to ascertain the purity of honey, and to screen out any poisonous mushrooms. However, since the radioactive plumes emitted from Chernobyl had passed over the grain-growing area of the Ukraine, the nature of the work done by the testing section has changed completely. On top of the shiny new table was a small lead box approximately eight inches square. This box, used for measuring radiation, has become an indispensable piece of equipment.

Since the accident at Chernobyl, it has become compulsory to test samples of all vegetables, mushrooms, fruit, meat, eggs, and dairy products. In the first year after the accident, radiation levels above those acceptable were often found, and a large quantity of foodstuffs had to be destroyed. Recently, in many areas, testing is being carried out at the point of production in order to defray the cost of transportation, so the amount of unsuitable produce appearing at the market has decreased. This has meant that city-dwellers are doubly certain of being protected from harmful substances. We wondered if the same could be said for the producers themselves.

After the accident at Chernobyl, the government bought up foodstuffs produced in the affected areas and gave out an allowance of one ruble per day per person. At first glance, this would seem a satisfactory method of preventing the consumption of contaminated produce. In reality, however, the villagers knew that this policy would not solve the problem completely, because of the overall shortage of "safe" produce. For this reason the health authorities in Kiev acknowledge the possibility of radiation accumulating in the bodies of those living in rural areas. Of particular concern is the produce grown on private plots by villagers for their own consumption. Gregorii Ahalamienko, deputy head of the Belorussiyan Health Department, admitted that the problem was a difficult one to solve.

"Private plots are not under the same supervision as sovkhozy (state farms) and kolkhozy (collective farms), so all we can do is warn people."

In an article on Belorussiya, "The Continuing Aftereffects of Chernobyl," published by the Tokyo office of the Novosti Press Agency in its APN Press News issue of April 28, 1989, mention was made that warnings about contamination had been pasted up on notice boards in several hundred villages. The article concluded with the following words: "People soon become accustomed to warnings. As long as this is the case, the danger posed by radiation will not diminish."