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After Chernobyl: Poisonous milk and radioactive mushrooms

Eating mushrooms from the wrong neighbourhood can mean exposing yourself to a dose of radiation higher than in the past 5 years altogether!

Even today mushrooms can have a high dose of radioactivity from Chernobyl if picked in the wrong region
Picture by T. Micke

Do you remember the times when you had to think twice if you should go to the open-air bath on nice sunny days? Sand boxes on public playgrounds were emptied. Farmers had to throw a part of their harvest away. A company put an ad in the newspapers saying: "Protect your family from radioactive radiation" That company sold pocket-sized radiation gages. Are those memories the only thing left of Chernobyl in Austria? Sadly enough not!

It isn't a secret that the Europeans were unprepared for a plume of nuclear fallout drifting over Europe. Hardly anybody knew how to assess the dangers and effects of radioactive radiation.

The contamination varied in the different parts of Europe. Rain and wind made it impossible to forecast the contamination. In Austria the contamination was increased in Salzburg, Styria and parts of Upper and Lower Austria when it rained at the beginning of May.

For the same reason thousands of reindeers had to be slaughtered in the North of Sweden over which the plume of nuclear fallout drifted first. The Lapps didn't only lose their means of existence because of the high doses of radioactive radiation; they also became the human guinea pigs of the experts on the subject of radiation.

The specialists had difficulties deciding on the highest acceptable intake of radioactively contaminated food.

E.g. the highest acceptable intake of iodine 131 in milk varied between 20 Becquerel per litre in parts of Germany and 2000 Becquerel per litre in France and Albania.

Different evacuation zones were drawn in the contingency plans of the various countries. In case of a nuclear catastrophe in its own country Chernobyl drew an evacuation zone of 30 km, France of 10 km, the USA of 16 km and Germany of 20 km. It turned out that even Chernobyl's 30 km were not sufficient.

According to a report of the Austrian Chancellery Austria isn't contaminated anymore since about two years.

Lucky for the Europeans that in 1986 it was a late spring in Europe. The radioactive cloud was above Austria when the plants, especially the grass and herbage, hadn't germinated yet. Therefore they couldn't absorb a lot of radiation. If the atomic accident had happened a few weeks later - during the growth period - the entire harvest would have had to be destroyed.

The caesium isotope 137 that will take until 2016 to have decayed to half of its initial radioactivity, makes the Austrian farmers' lives a misery. The caesium got into the soil together with rain and then the plants absorbed it. Luckily the caesium is bound in the soil of the fields. However the plants more easily absorb the caesium in the sour soil of forests and meadows. So field vegetables and grains were edible soon.

Even if it seems like we have put Chernobyl "behind us", the danger isn't over yet. Cows on some farms in Upper Austria and in the mountains still give milk with 30 Becquerel per litre or more because it is contaminated with radioactive caesium. The highest acceptable dose of caesium in baby milk is 10 Becquerel per litre.

There lies no danger in the contaminated "raw milk" for us because in dairies it is diluted with contamination-free milk therefore the caesium level is harmless. The Federal Ministry for Health didn't think of one thing. Graduate engineer Antonia Wenisch of the Institute for Ecology in Vienna said: "Most of the farmers don't know that their milk is contaminated. I would like to see the farmer who buys baby milk from the supermarket to feed his children."

Another example: A family from a big city goes on vacation to a farm in Upper or Lower Austria for two months during the summer. They collect their own berries and mushrooms because they are a delicious and free meal.

Graduate engineer Wenisch: "Going on vacation to a contaminated area and eating local berries and mushrooms for 2 to 3 months can lead to a contamination that is higher than in the past 5 years altogether!" (The data is also published in a report of the Federal Ministry) That means that even in the years to come eating wild berries and mushrooms should be avoided.

In 1986 Austria wasn't prepared for the worst-case scenario. Is it prepared for a similar radioactive accident today?

Herbert Sorantin, a specialist in radiation protection: "If there is a warning a day or more up front, the question can be answered with 'yes'. But if we are only warned an hour or less before - or if contaminated refugees arrive than the answer is clearly 'no'. As the past demonstrates, if there is an accident in the Czech Republic in spite of an treaty a late warning is to be expected"

< Read part 6 of the series: The children of Chernobyl

© A report by Tobias Micke (25-04-91) – Contact