Milk Is Still Radioactive Because of Chernobyl, 30 Years After Nuclear Disaster

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Mykola Lazarev of the Ukrainian Institute of Agricultural Radiology takes one of 50 milk samples to be tested for radioactive caesium. Denis Sinyakov/Greenpeace

More than 30 years after a Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant reactor exploded—blowing plumes of radioactive material across Europe—Ukraine is still feeling the effects of the tragedy.

Milk from villages 150 miles away is still five times more radioactive than the Ukranian government judges safe, researchers reported in the journal Environment International. The scientists fear radioactivity levels won't reach the safe limit until at least 2040 if officials fail to properly intervene.

"More than 30 years after the Chernobyl disaster, people are still routinely exposed to radioactive caesium when consuming locally produced staple foods, including milk, in Chernobyl-affected areas of Ukraine," study author Iryna Labunska of Greenpeace Research Laboratories at the University of Exeter said in a statement.

Researchers testing milk from farms and homes in Rivne area of Ukraine discovered the milk contained high levels of the radioactive nucleus caesium-137—an isotope that sticks around much longer than some of the other explosion byproducts.

Ukraine's "safe limit" for radioactive caesium is 1.6 becquerel per cubic inch for adults and 0.7 becquerel per cubic inch for children, the study authors report. But, some samples contained up to 8.2 becquerel per cubic inch. That's more than 12 times the safe limit for children.

"Many people in the area we studied keep cows for milk, and children are the main consumers of that milk," Labunska said. "Though the level of soil contamination in the studied areas is not extremely high, radioactive caesium continues to accumulate in milk and other foods, such that the residents of these villages are chronically exposed to radioactivity that presents health risks to almost every system in the body—especially among children."

Ukraine's government, Labunska said, took certain measures to reduce radiation exposure. But these ended in 2009. The researchers argued the Ukraine could take measures to limit radiation exposure for 8,300 people living in six villages for less than $12 per person, per year. As radiation levels fell, they wrote, the costs would decrease.

Just two years ago, Greenpeace researchers reported isotopes including caesium-137 still lingered in the region's food.

"Government and international monitoring needs to take place, along with help for people affected by this radiation," Labunska added in the university statement. "This situation should also act as a warning and a reminder of just how long the legacy of nuclear accidents can be. "Without adequate countermeasures, what may now seem a purely historical event will remain a daily reality for those communities most impacted."