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Chernobyl " population will continue to slide toward extinction "

Date: Mon, 23 Apr 2001 10:56:00 -0400

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Here's a great entry in the competition for who can write the most

outrageous article on Chernobyl (no trace of any journalism professional

code of ethics here...) - its from Sunday's Toronto Star :

Apr. 22, 01:01 EDT 

No end to the fallout 

Fifteen years later, children in Belarus bear the brunt of the Chernobyl


Menno Meijer


MINSK - IT IS A catastrophe of global proportions: A silent, unseen killer

is slowly creeping its way out of Belarus and into surrounding countries. 

It is destroying the future of 10 million people in Belarus who struggle

daily with the effects of radiation. It's the children who suffer the most. 

When reactor Number 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine exploded 15

years ago Thursday, it burned for days while officials kept silent. May Day

celebrations were nearing and the Soviet government said little. 

The wind sent the radioactive cloud into Belarus, whose border with Ukraine

lies 10 kilometres north of the plant, and the rain washed it from the sky

onto an unsuspecting people. 

Here in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, soccer players became sick as the

rain fell. Spectators, too, became ill. No one knew what was happening to


A 6-year-old girl walking home from school in the rain was met at the door

by her frantic mother. The woman was a surgeon at a children's hospital and

had heard the rumour about radioactive fallout. She washed her daughter and

kept the doors and windows shut. 

The child lost most of her hair. 

The heaviest contamination fell in the Mogilev and Gomel regions, in the

southeast corner of Belarus. 

In areas close to Chernobyl, many people were evacuated immediately,

although most had nowhere to go. But it would be five years before people in

areas a little farther away were evacuated. Some of the most heavily

contaminated communities have since been bulldozed to keep people from

returning to their homes. 

The countryside is poison now. Wherever houses remained, the old people

returned. They grow crops and raise livestock. But the children are gone.

There are no birds in the trees. 

In other areas, there was no evacuation. Children are fed at the schools

with food the state considers safe, but they play in schoolyards with high

radiation levels. They breath the dust, they ingest the poison. The children

are sick. 

Suffering with what is often called Chernobyl AIDS, their immune systems are

failing. This has led to a sharp rise in stomach and intestinal diseases,

heart disease, anemia, endemic goitre, vision problems and cancer. 

Children exposed to the fallout in the first few days after the reactor

explosion received high doses of radioactive iodine. They are now victims of

thyroid cancer, which is growing at a rate of 100 cases annually. Each day

at the thyroid cancer clinic in Minsk, doctors operate on seven or eight


In the 11 years before the blast, there were 1,392 cases of thyroid cancer

in the general population. In the 11-year period following, there were 5,449

cases, most of them children. 

The rate of absenteeism in the schools is about 10 per cent owing to

illness. Many studies point to a large increase in birth defects and genetic


On top of everything else, Belarus is in economic crisis with skyrocketing

inflation. In the first year after Chernobyl, the tiny country spent 20 per

cent of its annual budget on fighting the fallout. Now, it allots only 5 per


In orphanages, children live with small portions of food and, in most cases,

without toilet paper or soap to wash. When they turn 17, they are released,

but they have nowhere to go. The incidence of suicide among those who leave

the orphanages is 17 per cent, while 35 per cent end up in jail. 

Often, children arrive at the orphanages after their penniless parents -

many of them alcoholics - desert them. But as long as they have family, the

children can't be adopted. 

In a sanatorium in the Vitebsk region, 150 children live for up to three

years tied to their beds so a disease affecting their hip joints can heal.

For want of a leg brace worth $4,200, they could go home. Instead, they are

lined in rows in rooms resembling classrooms where they eat, sleep and


On collective farms, workers often go months without their pay, which

usually is only about $20 a month. 

One woman gets up at 4:30 a.m. to go to work in a dairy farm until 8 p.m.

She works seven days a week and in 12 years has had only one four-week

vacation. She is 33 and looks a well-worn 50. Her children come to the farm

after school to see her and play in the muck while she milks emaciated cows

fed meagre portions of nutrient-poor, contaminated silage. 

The cows produce only about three litres each milking. Some milk is too

contaminated to process at the local plant, but the woman is allowed to take

it home to her hungry children. It is deducted from her wages. 

Some orphanages are sponsored by groups such as Canadian Aid for Chernobyl,

which provides clothes, soap, toilet paper and money for renovations. But

foreign aid can't keep up with the need. 

Used incubators at the Minsk children's hospital were donated several years

ago by Switzerland but are falling apart. Just $7,000 a year would repair

the equipment. 

The technology is available to clean up the contamination. Caesium 135,

which was released into the atmosphere by the explosion, has a radioactive

half-life of 2 million years. That can be reduced to just 2* days by

shooting neutrons into it, and the nuclear research centre in Minsk has the

largest neutron generator in the world. 

Plants with large root systems can be used to extract radioactive material

from the soil and the top layer of soil can be scraped off and neutralized

by the neutron generator. 

But the price tag for decontamination is about $500 billion. And until the

world is ready to accept the reality of the situation in Belarus, the

population will continue to slide toward extinction - and the fallout will


Menno Meijer is a freelance photographer and reporter based in London, Ont.

He recently returned from a trip to Belarus.


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