Decades Later and Far Away, Chernobyl Disaster Still Contaminates Milk

Abandoned apartment blocks in Pripyat, in the Chernobyl exclusion zone in Ukraine. Decades after the nuclear disaster, researchers say children 140 miles away are still drinking radioactive milk.

LONDON — More than three decades after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine, cows far from the accident site still produce milk with dangerous levels of radiation, children still drink it and the problem could persist for decades to come, researchers reported on Friday.

In villages as much as 140 miles from the Chernobyl nuclear plant, radioactivity readings in milk are up to five times the Ukranian government’s official limit for adults, and more than 12 times the limit for children, according to scientists from the Greenpeace Research Laboratories at the University of Exeter, in Britain, and the Ukrainian Institute of Agricultural Radiology.

Without large-scale intervention, the radiation will remain above the adult level until at least 2040 and above the child threshold even longer, they predicted. They reported their findings in the journal Environment International.

The researchers examined samples from 14 villages in the Rivne region, in northwest Ukraine, where the milk is consumed by the farmers and their neighbors. They found wide variations in radiation levels, depending on soil conditions and other factors, and it is not clear that the same results would hold true for large-scale commercial farms.

“These people know that the milk is unsafe, but they tell us, ‘We don’t have a choice, we have to feed our families,’ ” said Iryna Labunska, a researcher at the University of Exeter who was the principal author of the study. “These are rural communities and the people are poor.”

The result, she said, is that “children are still drinking contaminated milk, which is heartbreaking.”

A steam explosion and fire in 1986 at the plant, north of Kiev, pumped a toxic cloud into the atmosphere, in what is generally regarded as the worst nuclear disaster in history. Radioactive fallout from the accident was detected worldwide, but the worst of it fell in Ukraine and Belarus, just to the north. People are still officially prohibited from living within a 1,000-square-mile “exclusion zone” around the site, though a few remain.

Other scientists have discovered radiation in milk from northern Ukraine over the years, but the new study shows that it remains at high levels, and far outside the area most affected by Chernobyl.

Much of the radioactive material released from the Chernobyl power plant has broken down and no longer poses a threat. The primary danger now comes from an isotope, cesium-137, that persists longer, remaining in the soil and collecting in vegetation that is consumed by cows.

Exposure can cause an array of health problems, including cancers, cataracts and digestive ailments.

The study said that the danger can be mitigated by adding a chemical, hexacyanoferrate, to cattle feed. The compound is used to treat poisoning with heavy metals, like cesium, because it binds with them and allows them to pass through the digestive tract without being absorbed into the body.

The problem is cost. Ms. Labunska said that to decrease radiation to acceptable levels just in the villages studied, home to only 800 people, would cost about $80,000 a year.

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