He is the Associate Professor of Toxicology,
University of Georgia
An unusual northerly wind on the fateful morning of April 26, 1986, carried 70 percent of the radioactive particles released from Chernobyl into Belarus. The radioactive cloud left 20 percent of the small country contaminated.As the old bus rattled down the road from Chernobyl to Minsk, I received still another lesson about the chaos emerging from the demise of the Communist empire in Eastern Europe.
My graduate student, Kevin Holloman, and I were riding on the public bus through Belarus, one of the new republics born out of the former Soviet Union, following the conclusion of an environmental research visit to Chernobyl-site of the world's worst nuclear disaster, contaminating thousands of square miles in 1986.
Travel in the former Soviet Union is never easy. In this case we prepared for the time-consuming and extensive detour around the Exclusion Zone (the area of the highest radioactive contamination) in order to return to the airport in Minsk.
Much to our surprise, however, the bus drove through the gates of the Exclusion Zone and into the most radioactively and chemically contaminated areas in the world.
Several times we pulled up at old bus stops (now overgrown with weeds), and passengers nonchalantly got on and off the bus. Kevin and I frantically began looking over our radioactive contamination maps and found that some of the stops in the area were at 10,000 times radiation background! Kevin checked our radiation dosimetry instruments, and we were getting a moderate dose even in the bus.
As two young women got off at one particularly contaminated stop, I felt like yelling out the window for them to get back in the bus (but I don't know the language well enough, and I probably would have only scared them).
After the trip we threw out our clothes and went through our standard decontamination procedures for our personal protection. Our fellow bus travelers knew the areas we stopped at were contaminated, too, of course. It is merely that with the myriad of problems they face, having to live daily in one of the most contaminated places on the earth is not pressing enough for them to be concerned with.
Indeed, the average Russian (or Ukrainian, Belarussian, Kazakh, or any of the other major ethnic groups of the former Soviet Union) is far more concerned about how to maintain a steady diet, get medical care that won't kill him, find a second set of clothes, and secure a job making more than the median $30 a month. The massive environmental contamination is viewed as a problem that will just have to wait until later, especially since immediate effects aren't readily visible.
I am an environmental toxicologist and a university professor who has always had a strong abiding interest in Eastern Europe and the Slavic people. Now, thanks to opportunities provided through Christian Leadership Ministries, I have been able to link the two strongest interests in my professional life: toxicology and the former Soviet Union.
My first trip, in 1989, to the former Soviet Union was arranged by CLM to Moscow and Tbilisi (in what is now the Republic of Georgia). Although I had attempted for years to gain access to Eastern Europe to conduct environmental studies there, I had been repeatedly thwarted by the bureaucratic barriers erected by the Cold War and the lack of interest of the Soviet government in exposing their massive environmental problems.
Once CLM arranged for my initial entrance into the country and into a number of universities, the ensuing scientific contacts made it possible to arrange subsequent trips to some of the most contaminated places on the planet. Of course, that's not something most sane people would want, but for a toxicologist it is a professional "heaven on earth."
Overall, Eastern Europe has massive toxic contamination spread throughout the countryside, with some of the highest and most widely dispersed contaminant levels ever seen. In general, the widespread radioactive and chemical contamination is far higher than what is seen even in the worst situations in industrial parts of the United States. One of the most striking examples of this is the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
In 1986, the world's worst nuclear accident occurred at the Chernobyl power station on the border between Belarus and Ukraine (then part of the Soviet Union, but now independent). The amount of radioactivity unleashed was not unlike what would happen following a moderate nuclear bomb detonation. More than two million people still live in highly contaminated areas, with no hope of leaving with the present dismal economic climate.
My colleagues and I have almost unlimited access to areas where we study the effects of massive exposures of radiation on genetic material of living organisms. I have encountered almost no other Americans and only a few Europeans conducting similar research. Restricted access and great technical and logistical difficulties in conducting such controlled scientific studies effectively dissuades most scientists from working there. However, the potential for helping the Slavic people and learning what the consequences of nuclear war may be are strong incentives to continue the work.
The East Europeans know they have severe environmental problems, especially from the Chernobyl accident. One of the greatest tragedies of the accident is the 40 to 50 percent birth rate decline in southern Belarus.
Fear has gripped the Belarussians-they're afraid their children will have birth defects. The women terminate pregnancies by abortion or decide against pregnancy due to a fear that is not scientifically substantiated. To date, no significant increase in birth defects has been detected.
So far, the most pressing medical problems seem to be types of cancer: leukemia, and thyroid, and the possibility of many others appearing in the future. Medical records in Belarus and surrounding republics are in such terrible condition that it is difficult to make any substantiated claim, but row upon row of hospital beds with balding children bear their own testament.
Our desire is that the information we gather, such as the truth about birth defect rates, will bring some hope to people who are running on a deficit of hope right now. We believe it will diminish some of the unfounded fears that only add to the many realistic ones they have.
Our efforts have also been combined with humanitarian aid from organizations such as Citihope International. Through these groups we can bring in much-needed food and pharmaceutical supplies for Chernobyl victims. Even the simplest of medicines are often nonexistent in this former superpower.
In addition to trying to help the Slavic people with immediate problems generated by the Chernobyl accident, we hope to use these doors opened by CLM to add perhaps important information to scientific literature.
Although the dangers of accidents like that at Chernobyl are very real, nuclear disasters in the future are far more likely to come from the misuse of weapons. Although we have stepped back from the abyss of mutually assured destruction with the demise of superpower rivalry, the end of the Cold War has left vast nuclear arsenals behind.
In the republics there are still 17,000 tactical nuclear warheads, which are small enough to fit in a car or a van. These nuclear warheads can be fired from a cannon or dropped from a plane and are made to be easily transported.
Most of these weapons are earmarked for decommissioning. Unfortunately, there is not an adequate accounting system in the republics for tracking the placement of warheads and decommissioned nuclear material. Even after the warheads are decommissioned, the nuclear material is not destroyed, but simply removed from the shell casing and stored.
Even more disturbing is the recent trend of the selling of military hardware by the soldiers in charge of guarding them. It's been revealed that there have been numerous failed attempts to smuggle nuclear material across Eastern Bloc borders. It is common knowledge that only a tiny fraction of smuggling attempts are stopped.
The harsh reality is that this nuclear material from the Eastern Bloc will soon be in the hands of the highest bidder, and, almost certainly, some of these individuals will be terrorists. Therefore, we consider it imperative to determine the toxicological consequences of massive radiation exposure from the unique environmental situation surrounding the Chernobyl disaster. Unfortunately, we are going to need this information at some time in the near future.
Of course, the only real solution to the overwhelming problems of the people in the republics is the same as for people in the affluent West- Jesus Christ. Fortunately, the people of Eastern Europe are, in general, more prepared and open to examine the claims of Christ than people in the West.
Ironically, the severe economic, political, and environmental problems left behind by the collapse of Marxist systems there have made these people very open to considering a spiritual dimension to their lives. I have personally witnessed a number of scientists, physicians, and students turn toward a belief in God and the precepts of the Bible. It's certainly invigorating to work in an environment where you are needed, your help is wanted, and where academic scrutiny and inquiry is invited (contrary to the situation typically found in American universities).
The number one reason my colleagues and I have become involved in this work is that we want to help these beleaguered people now, physically and spiritually. Secondly, we want to study the results of this particular example of extraordinary environmental problems. Finally, we want to be ready to give desperately needed answers of what to expect when this happens again.