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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
SPECIAL TO THE STAR
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
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 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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