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Ukrainian schoolchildren eating food tainted by Chernobyl fallout

Published 22/04/2016

A paediatrician performs a yearly check for radioactive elements on a 10-year-old schoolgirl (AP)
A paediatrician performs a yearly check for radioactive elements on a 10-year-old schoolgirl (AP)

Schoolchildren in rural Ukraine are having to eat increasing amounts of food from land still contaminated by fallout from the Chernobyl disaster three decades ago.

Thousands of families are caught between the consequences of two disasters: the residue from Chernobyl and the recent plunge of Ukraine's economy.

The cash-strapped government cancelled the school lunch programme for 350,000 children last year - the only source of clean food in many villages near Chernobyl - so families are resorting to milk and produce from land still contaminated by fallout from the world's worst nuclear accident.

After the explosion and fire on April 26 1986, the most heavily affected areas in Ukraine were classified into four zones. Residents from three were evacuated or allowed to volunteer for resettlement, while the fourth was classed as not contaminated enough for resettlement but eligible for subsidies to help with health issues.

The Institute of Agricultural Radiology said recent testing in the zone showed radiation levels in wild-grown food such as nuts, berries and mushrooms were two to five times higher than what is considered safe.

Ukraine's economy has been weakened by separatist war in its eastern industrial heartland, endemic corruption and the loss of Crimea, which was annexed by Russia. Last year, the Kiev government, which is propped up by billions of pounds in loans from the US, the EU and the World Bank, cut off paying for school lunches in Zone 4.

There are no official figures, but a typical price of about 20 hryvnia (50p) would put the programme's funding at about £35 million a year.

One woman, Viktoria Vetrova, from the village of Zalyshany, 30 miles south west of the destroyed reactor, knows the risk her four children take in drinking milk from the family's two cows and eating dried mushrooms and berries from the forest.

Her eight-year-old son Bogdan suffers from an enlarged thyroid, a condition studies have linked to radioactivity.

"We are aware of the dangers, but what can we do?" said Ms Vetrova. "There is no other way to survive."

Teacher Natalya Stepanchuk said: "Hot meals in the schools were the only clean food, which was tested for radiation, for the children. Now the children have gone over to the local food, over which there is absolutely no control."

In 2012, the government halted the monitoring of radioactive contamination of food and soil in Zone 4, which was called the "zone of strict radio-ecological control". The state has also cancelled a programme for buying Ferocin, known as Prussian Blue, a substance farmers could give their cattle to hasten the elimination of the cesium-137 isotope. Without financial help, farmers in the area are unwilling to buy it on their own.

"The government spends huge funds for the treatment of the local population, but cannot put out a little money on prevention," said Valery Kashparov, head of the Ukrainian Institute of Agricultural Radiology. "I am ashamed to look people in the eye."

Vitaly Petruk, head of the agency that administers the "exclusion zones" closest to the Chernobyl plant, says the decision on the school lunches came down to how best to use limited funds.

"What is better: to give all the money to people who have radiation sickness and save them, or split the money ... and give each of them four hryvnia (10p)?" he asked. "The idea was to focus on certain things, rather than dissipate energy and waste money."

This calculation means that many in the village of about 350 people go without food. There are 1,300 settlements in the zone where the lunches were cancelled. Even when they were available, children were likely to have been eating contaminated food when out of school.

The lunch cancellations did not affect nurseries, such as the one in the same building as the local school, and the nursery cook, Lyubov Shevchuk, sometimes slips the older children something.

"Children faint and fall. I try to at least give them some hot tea, or take from one child to give to another," she said.

With no government agency taking responsibility for feeding the schoolchildren, it is largely left to charities. An Italian group, Mondo in Cammino, raised money to supply 130 pupils in one village, Radynka, with a year's lunches at a cost of 15,000 euros (£12,000).

"We know that Ukraine is near default. They decided that these families were no longer children of Chernobyl," said the organisation's director, Massimo Bonfatti.

The overall effects of radioactive fallout remain intensely debated. A UN report concluded that the additional radioactivity over a 20-year period was approximately equivalent to that of a CAT scan, because of higher levels of the long-lived cesium-137.

Ausrele Kesminiene, a doctor with the World Health Organisation, said there is little evidence associating radioactivity-contaminated food with cancers other than in the thyroid.

But a review compiled by Greenpeace published in March found scientific studies indicating children in areas contaminated like Zalyshany show much-reduced respiratory capacity. An EU-funded study tracking 4,000 children for three years in contaminated areas found cardiovascular insufficiencies in 81% of the children.

Yuri Bandazhevsky, a paediatrician who has studied the effect of small doses of radiation on the human body, said there are "very serious pathological processes" which can lead to defects of the cardiovascular system and cancer. Dr Bandazhevsky, whose work is widely cited abroad, was imprisoned in his native Belarus for four years. Supporters allege it was due to his work studying Chernobyl's consequences. He now works in Ukraine.

"With regret I have to state that nobody cares about this, and those hungry children are another proof of how authorities treat a population which suffers on these territories," he said.

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