In this photo taken on Monday, 11 April 2016, farmer Nikolai Chubenok stands near horses in the village of Vorotets, on land just 45 kilometers (25 miles) north of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. Photo: AP Photo

By Yuras Karmanau
25 April 2016

GUBAREVICHI, Belarus (AP) – On the edge of Belarus' Chernobyl exclusion zone, down the road from the signs warning "Stop! Radiation," a dairy farmer offers his visitors a glass of freshly drawn milk. Associated Press reporters politely decline the drink but pass on a bottled sample to a laboratory, which confirms it contains levels of a radioactive isotope at levels 10 times higher than the nation's food safety limits.

That finding on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the world's worst nuclear accident indicates how fallout from the April 26, 1986, explosion at the plant in neighboring Ukraine continues to taint life in Belarus. The authoritarian government of this agriculture-dependent nation appears determined to restore long-idle land to farm use -- and in a country where dissent is quashed, any objection to the policy is thin.

The farmer, Nikolai Chubenok, proudly says his herd of 50 dairy cows produces up to two tons of milk a day for the local factory of Milkavita, whose brand of Parmesan cheese is sold chiefly in Russia. Milkavita officials called the AP-commissioned lab finding "impossible," insisting their own tests show their milk supply contains traces of radioactive isotopes well below safety limits.

Yet a tour along the edge of the Polesie Radioecological Reserve, a 2,200-square-kilometer (850-square-mile) ghost landscape of 470 evacuated villages and towns, reveals a nation showing little regard for the potentially cancer-causing isotopes still to be found in the soil. Farmers suggest the lack of mutations and other glaring health problems, suggest that Chernobyl's troubles can be consigned to history. […]

One of the most prominent medical critics of the government's approach to safeguarding the public from Chernobyl fallout, Dr. Yuri Bandazhevsky, was removed as director of a Belarusian research institute and imprisoned in 2001 on corruption charges that international rights groups branded politically motivated. Since his 2005 parole he has resumed his research into Chernobyl-related cancers with European Union sponsorship.

Bandazhevsky, now based in Ukraine, says he has no doubt that Belarus is failing to protect citizens from carcinogens in the food supply.

"We have a disaster," he told the AP in the Ukraine capital, Kiev. "In Belarus, there is no protection of the population from radiation exposure. On the contrary, the government is trying to persuade people not to pay attention to radiation, and food is grown in contaminated areas and sent to all points in the country."

The milk sample subjected to an AP-commissioned analysis backs this picture.

The state-run Minsk Center of Hygiene and Epidemiology said it found strontium-90, a radioactive isotope linked to cancers and cardiovascular disease, in quantities 10 times higher than Belarusian food safety regulations allow. The test, like others in resource-strapped Belarus, was insufficiently sophisticated to test for heavier radioactive isotopes associated with nuclear fallout, including americium and variants of plutonium. […]

The division of the Belarusian Emergencies Ministry responsible for cleaning up the consequences of Chernobyl says that the rate of thyroid cancer in children runs 33 times higher than before the nuclear blast. It says thyroid cancer rates run several times higher in adults. [more]

AP Exclusive: Test finds Chernobyl residue in Belarus milk



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