Poverty Radiates in Region, Numbing Fear of Chernobyl

Many locals stop taking precautions from contamination

'I'll just have to feed it to the pigs then, won't I? What else can I do with it?," asks Nadya Grechishkina.

The tight-lipped headscarved grandmother had milked her cow that morning, poured a half gallon into Mason jars, and made her way to the marketplace in this muddy, featureless town in southeastern Belarus in the hope of making a few rubles to supplement her meager pension.

Setting her milk for sale on the sidewalk, she had run into the local health inspector. Ten minutes later, after a routine test in a makeshift laboratory round the corner, Mrs. Grechishkina learned that her milk was dangerously radioactive.

"How come?," she asked angrily. "We drink it ourselves, we feed the children with it; last year when we did the test it was fine."

Probably, the inspector suggested, she had inadvertently been feeding her cow during the winter on radioactive hay.

A decade after the accident, people in this part of Belarus are incessantly stalked by the nuclear fallout of Chernobyl, which lurks in every vegetable, fruit, and blade of grass.

And many of them - their memories blurred, their choices limited by poverty - have simply stopped caring.

"People are tired of being scared," says Tamara Sharshakova, who runs a health information center in the regional capital of Gomel. This area, just northeast of the Chernobyl nuclear power station, bore the brunt of the radiation that leaked after the April 1986 explosion. About131,000 people have been evacuated from the worst-hit villages, and nearly 2 million still live in places contaminated by cesium 137, strontium 90, or plutonium 240. These elements have half lives ranging from scores to tens of thousands of years.

The clearest medical evidence of the radiation's damage is in children's thyroid glands. The rate of thyroid cancer has increased more than a hundredfold since 1986, threatening far more people than the 32 who died right after the accident.

Other indicators of the health effects are still unclear, though doctors worry that the worst is yet to come. The total radioactivity of the material released in the reactor fire is estimated to have been 200 times that from the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One-fifth of Belarus is now unfit for agriculture.

But that doesn't stop people growing things. Belarus is in economic free fall, and most of its people are struggling to make ends meet. Although food sold in shops is generally felt to have been tested, and to be safe, it costs more than food sold on street corners, or grown in people's own gardens.

"If the choice is to die from starvation today, or to possibly die from radiation in the distant future, our people choose the second option," says Nikolai Yermakov, the man leading local efforts to mitigate Chernobyl's effects.

Fatalism is widespread, agrees Vladimir Nitish, deputy head of the local cancer hospital. He says it is often hard to persuade people to undergo routine checkups.

"They don't believe in any help," Dr. Nitish says. "They don't think anything real can change."

Nowhere is that attitude more deeply ingrained than among the few remaining inhabitants of Bartolomeyevka.

This mostly abandoned village surrounded by abandoned fields is one of the most radioactive spots on the planet. But that distinction doesn't bother Misha Derbeyu. When the village was evacuated a few years ago, he stayed with his wife, nine hens, two dogs, and a cat because "it's just the same everywhere else. Who knows whether it's safe to live here? Who cares?"

But some are trying to combat this fatalism, and to jolt people out of their tendency to blame all their ills on Chernobyl.

"We have to make people see that they are responsible for their own health, to make them think what they can do for themselves," says Mrs. Sharshakov of the Dutch-funded health information center in Gomel. "This is new for Belarus."

The center was founded, she explains, because doctors at the original Dutch clinic could find nothing physically wrong with a lot of the patients they saw. "But they were very worried about their health, and 85 percent of them said their problems were connected with Chernobyl."

Even so, when poverty numbs people to the risks they are running, it is hard to stop people from doing whatever they feel they have to do in order to survive - even if that includes gathering horrifically radioactive mushrooms and berries from the forest.

Just across the border in Russia, doctors found last year that internal radiation levels in patients they studied had risen threefold since 1991, as local people gave up taking the precautions adopted after the accident.

Some experts believe that this might lead to another peak in Chernobyl effects in 20 years, but nobody really knows. Belarussian doctors studying the long-term impact of low-level radiation exposure have found high levels of abnormalities in children. But how severely these will affect the victims in the future is still uncertain.

In the meantime, people simply go on with their lives. Mrs. Grechishkina, for example, did not give her contaminated milk to the pigs. She walked a few blocks down the street, and once she was out of sight of the inspector she set her bottles out for sale again. Somebody would buy them.

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