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Thursday, March 30, 2006 09:59 am

Once a killer, always a killer

Twenty years after the Chernobyl disaster, the children of the former Soviet Union still are paying the price

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GOMEL, Belarus — Even though she was born six years after the Chernobyl disaster, Anna Pesenko is one of millions of its victims in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. Annya, as she’s known by friends and family, was first found to have cancer in 1994
PHOTO BY ROBERT KNOTH/TCS/ZUMA PRESS
ROGIN, Belarus — On the night of April 26, 1986, one of the crews on duty at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant received special instructions from Moscow to conduct an experiment. They had to check whether the turbines could provide enough power to keep the cooling system running in case of a power cut. Before the experiment was started, all safety systems were switched off. The chain reaction that followed could not be controlled. Yuri Korneev’s shift had started at midnight. As usual, he worked at reactor block No. 4: “There was a very loud bang,” Korneev remembers. “We didn’t realize what had happened.” The explosion was so powerful, it blew the 1,000-ton roof off the building. Large quantities of radioactive elements were launched high into the atmosphere and spread across the entire Northern Hemisphere. Soldier Vasily Tychomirov didn’t know what to expect when he was sent over to Chernobyl. He had been told that the reactors could not be destroyed, “not even if an airplane would crash into the nuclear plant.” During the night of the disaster, Tychomirov first passed block No. 3: “It was raining ashes and debris.” He recalls the terrifying beauty of reactor No. 4: “I was only 22 years old, but I will never forget it. The roof was like an open book, and there was a magnificent light, a beautiful blue fire.” Korneev stood transfixed, hypnotized by the same amazing light: “It was a beautiful fire, incredibly brilliant.” The fire damaged his eyes, but at first he didn’t notice and continued his work as if he was on automatic pilot to be able to cope with the crisis: “We had to get rid of the helium in the building, and the oil was not to catch fire.” His report is modest, but colleagues explain how Korneev avoided an even bigger disaster by putting out the flames as the supply pipes, leading to 38 tons of fuel, were already on fire. It didn’t last long: “I could hardly see and then I started feeling very weak.” He ended up in a chaotic medical unit: “There were people throwing up everywhere. They went on until they had nothing left in their stomachs.” These were the symptoms of acute radiation disease caused by an overdose of gamma radiation. Ambulances were racing back and forth. In Chernobyl, Korneev waited patiently until it was his turn to be transported to the hospital. The organization for the veteran workers of Chernobyl says that Korneev is the only one alive today of the group that was on duty in block No. 4 when it exploded. In a quiet voice, Korneev succinctly recounts the events of that catastrophic night: “There was a doctor. I got an injection. I was taken to bed and I slept.” Only after radiation measurements in Sweden and Finland demonstrated that a disaster had occurred in the Soviet Union did the then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev publicly acknowledge that an accident had happened in Chernobyl. Even though Gorbachev treated the issue lightly, the situation was not under control and there was a lot to worry about. Tychomirov, one of those who worked on the night of the explosion, was awarded a Red Star for bravery. In 2000 he was treated for thyroid cancer. Korneev’s vision deteriorated, and the plant worker had new lenses implanted. The dose of radiation he took is considered too high for him to ever again set foot on the premises of a nuclear plant, he says: “It can be acutely fatal.” He has tried to find work, but whenever his medical files are put on the table, the interview is swiftly ended. Korneev is no longer strong enough to do physical work, so he will just carry on waiting and wondering whether the time bomb set inside him will go off: “I go to my farmhouse, grow my own vegetables, and eat some honey.”
During the summer, the landscape that surrounds Chernobyl consists of empty, smoothed-out spaces where villages were destroyed and buried; its inhabitants have left, either by force or voluntarily. A farmer mows the fields in long regular loops to stop the weeds and stubborn birch shoots from taking over the land. Behind him, a flock of storks spreads out across the land. Maneuvering in slow motion, they patrol the field, cutting off exits in search of panicking field mice. Not all villages have been destroyed, and not every officially contaminated area is entirely empty. The village teacher in Staroye Sharno, whom everyone calls Baba Hala, has never left. She has her garden and her animals — a cow, the cats, and, especially, the birds: “I talk to them: ‘Tchoo, tchoo, tchoo! Twee, twee, twee!’ ” The first year after the accident, she didn’t hear any birds, but then they gradually came back. Baba Hala lives amid the unkempt houses abandoned by her former neighbors. “They did offer me a flat in Zhytomir,” she says, “but what should I do there?” Grigory and Maria Smeyan, ages 71 and 77, respectively, did not have a choice in the matter and found themselves uprooted after the accident. They were living 27 kilometers from Chernobyl. Their village was evacuated in June 1986, says Grigory: “There was a truck for every two or three families. We were allowed to take one bed, a bag of potatoes, and food for three days. They gave us tinned meat, oranges, and 1,500 rubles per person.” Maria cannot be bothered to go back now, but Grigory remains nostalgic. “If I could, I would go there today even,” he says. “Over there the nightingales were singing, and here are only crows.” In Ukraine more than 100,000 people were evacuated in the weeks after the disaster, but a huge area of agricultural lands and forest is still affected. Many of the inhabitants of the area carry on eating fruits and vegetables from their own gardens, and they also continue fishing and gathering mushrooms and berries. This is what they are used to, even if it means they have an intake of radioactive elements two to five times higher than the standard. According to the Ukrainian government, this is the case for 3.5 million people.
Just ahead of the holiday season, the hospital’s corridors and consulting rooms are full. Surgeon Igor Komisarenko, head of the Komisarenko Institute for Endocrinology and Metabolism in Kiev, has been operating all morning. “Four years after the explosion we were confronted with a surge of cases of children with thyroid cancer,” says Komisarenko. The cancers were caused by radioactive iodine that was released during the disaster. Now, most of his patients are women. Nineteen-year-old Elena Gurok blames herself for her illness. Thyroid cancer was first diagnosed in 2002, and she has just had her second operation: “It is my own fault. I should have taken the medication regularly,” she says. Nila Bandarenko is another of Komisarenko’s patients. She just had her third operation and cannot yet speak, says the surgeon: “After the second one, microscopic particles got into her vessels and started growing there.” Bandarenko is also suffering from kidney cancer, and her prospects are unclear. Like many of the women here, she is from an area close to the nuclear plant. “The closer to Chernobyl, the bigger the chances are of getting thyroid cancer,” says Komisarenko. The United Nations even expects another 50,000 cases of thyroid cancer as a result of Chernobyl, says Carel de Rooy, UNICEF representative to the Russian Federation and Belarus: “The greatest danger from radioiodine is to the tiny thyroid glands of children. Researchers have found that in certain parts of Belarus, for example, 36.4 percent of children who were under the age of 4 at the time of the accident can expect to develop thyroid cancer.” UNICEF and other U.N. offices have campaigned for years now to encourage a policy of universal salt iodization that would make thyroid glands much less vulnerable to radioactive iodine as they become saturated with the iodized salt. So far Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia have not been willing to adapt their regulations. If another nuclear disaster were to take place, people would still not be protected from damage caused by radioactive iodine and other elements. Says Komisarenko: “After the Chernobyl disaster, iodine was distributed too late, but radiation can affect all parts of the human body. It can affect the stomach, the respiratory tract, and the gynecological organs.” In his hospital he has also noticed an increase in the incidence of serious kidney diseases. After the accident 19 regions in Russia, with 2.7 million people living in the area, were affected, and in Belarus a quarter of the nation’s territory got hit with two-thirds of the radioactive fallout from Chernobyl. At the time, 2.2 million people were living there, a number that has since dwindled to 1.5 million. The second-biggest city around, Gomel, was particularly badly affected. During the summer of 1986 the Pastuchenkos, like many thousands of families with small children, took their son and two girls out of the area. Marina, the family’s mother recalls: “We went as far away as possible. We went to Russia and even to Dagestan.” But in 1998, Irina, who is now 19 years old, was found to have a brain tumor. Three months later, her sister Yelena, now 24, was taken to a hospital, where she learned that she, too, had a brain tumor. “Irina had her first operation in May and half a year later she had a second operation and radiation therapy,” says her mother. Irina’s left arm is still partly paralyzed, and Irina has a poor memory as a result of surgery. Still, Irina made it into arts college and even her elder sister has finished law school successfully, despite the hospital appointments and having to recover from invasive surgery. Both Irina and Yelena went to Germany for plastic cranial surgery, and both girls have thyroid problems; Irina may soon need yet another operation. “We didn’t eat mushrooms. We didn’t swim in the river, but we should never have returned to this terrible place,” said Marina.
Along the Kiev roads, sign boards encourage the public: “Make love! There are 48 million people in Ukraine, and we need to have 52 million!” It is unlikely that the request will be fulfilled anytime soon. Nowhere in Europe has the population aged more dramatically than in the areas surrounding Chernobyl. After a shock wave of medical abortions after the disaster, the birthrate in Ukraine is only half of what it was in the mid-’70s. From 800,000 newborns a year, it has plummeted to fewer than 400,000. In Belarus the trend is similar. Dr. Vachslav Izhakovsky is director of the children’s hospital in Gomel. He says that only one in every four children is born healthy. The intensive-care unit has children with different congenital malformations: cleft palate, no ears, no nose, serious hydrocephaly. “In 1985 we had 200 children with congenital malformations; now we have 800,” says Izhakovsky. The total number of births registered by the hospital went down from 30,000 to 15,000. “The birth rate goes down, like everywhere in Europe,” says Izhakovsky, “but an important factor is that people realize the dangers of having children here.”
According to Izhakovsky, poverty is also affecting the birthrate: “The average salary is $150 [U.S.]. Especially in the villages, life is hard. People are forced to eat whatever they grow, and radioactive contamination is high.” Research in the contaminated area has shown that children have illnesses of the respiratory organs, the bones and connective tissues, or the digestive tract. There are also more cases of kidney disorders, cataracts, and heart and vascular diseases. Autopsies on children who died suddenly have found these children to have higher levels of the radioactive element cesium 137. Izhakovsky says: “We think cesium 137 replaces another element in the heart muscle, and, by doing so, it is causing damage.” The overall condition of many children is weak, according to the hospital’s director, and the children’s immune systems are underperforming. The independent Belrad Institute in the capital, Minsk, has done research all over Belarus. Director Alexei Nesterenko says that in large parts of the country, people still ingest radioactive elements through the food chain: “Half-a-million children in Belarus have concentrations that are too high.” Since the mid-’80s, children have been sent on holidays to so-called pioneer camps and to other “clean” areas. Many children still go abroad to stay with foster families. Clean food and exercise can help the body getting rid of part of the contamination. The Belrad Institute has developed a supplement of vitamins, minerals, and pectin that can do this as well; several courses a year can make the contamination levels go down by 60 percent, says Nesterenko, “but we don’t get enough money to supply half-a-million children. We have only enough for 25,000.” Almost 20 years after the Chernobyl accident, children are thus put at risk and are left more vulnerable to many diseases. In the social and economical isolation of Belarus, many parents are not capable of looking after their children and are forced to hand them over to state institutions. The worst-hit countries have all seen a clear rise in cases of congenital diseases. Identical twins Michael and Vladimir Iariga were born five minutes apart. Michael, the older, is seriously affected by hydrocephalus; his brother Vladimir was born deaf. Their mother is from Bragin, one of the most contaminated towns, and their father worked as a driver in the contaminated zone, evacuating people and transporting cattle around the area. He also worked in the fields hit by radioactive fallout, and doctors who examined his blood found his DNA to be badly damaged. “But we don’t get any help,” says the boys’ mother, Nadezhda, “because the boys were born more than three years after Chernobyl and we now live in Minsk, which is not a contaminated area.” The growing numbers of birth defects are especially disturbing because the trend is also noticed in less contaminated areas. Anna Gorchakova has started examining the effects with the use of European funding. In Minsk she is running a hospice program that assists children who are terminally ill, as well as their families. Gorchakova says that she has noted an increase in congenital disease in areas that were not so heavily exposed. As at the children’s hospital in Gomel, she has seen children with multiple defects: “I find it very worrying. Some of these children are real monsters. I am sorry; I don’t know how else to put it.” Pediatrician Valentina Smolnikova has seen the consequences in Buda Kashelova, in the south of Belarus. She has been working there since 1979 and has seen dramatic changes since the nuclear disaster: “Before that, we hardly had any oncological problem with children. Now there are many cases of brain tumors, cancer of the eyes, kidneys and other organs.” The first increase she noticed after the disaster was in cases of bone and skin cancer, “and there were also disorders of the nervous system with stress, depressions and abnormal behavior.” After some years the pattern changed and Smolnikova then started getting patients with thyroid cancer and leukemia. “Now there are many children with congenital heart and kidney diseases,” she says. According to Smolnikova, in her area only 10 percent of the children are born really healthy: “Many children have chronic diseases or they have very low immunity. Very young children have been here 30 or 50 times. They are here every single month of their life.”
 Copyright © Antoinette de Jong/TCS/ZUMA Press  
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