This article originally appeared in the May 24, 1986, issue of The Nation.
Both radioactive and political fallout from the Chernobyl reactor disaster have now soaked deep into the American grass roots. The first radiation was detected at ground level on the West Coast on May 6, eleven days after the meltdown apparently began. Readings were “way, way below” any levels that would indicate danger, said a confident Lee M. Thomas, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and head of the Federal task force monitoring the radiation. Indeed, rainwater in Richland, Washington, showed a reading of 500 picocuries per liter of iodine 131, while Federal guidelines call for concern only at a level of 15,000. The official White House line was that despite the irresponsibility of the Russians, there was “no danger to the United States.”
A reactor core the size of the one at the Chernobyl unit contains as much as 1,000 times the radiation released at Hiroshima. Forty years later, it remains unclear how many people in Hiroshima were killed by radiation alone, but the number was in the tens of thousands, extending into a third generation. Thus if even a small amount of the radiation from Chernobyl was released into the surrounding populated areas, we can expect thousands to die from it ultimately. In downwind Europe—particularly in Poland and parts of West Germany, where readings in the days right after the accident were extremely high—the damage will be horrifying.
Most serious will be the harm done to fetuses now in utero, infants and small children; the prime culprit will be iodine 131. Iodine is naturally ingested by the thyroid gland; radioactive iodine emits particles that damage or destroy that gland. I-131 can cross the placenta of pregnant women and travel directly to the thyroids of their fetuses, causing severe problems, including brain damage and respiratory difficulty at birth. This devastating process almost certainly caused the inordinate number of infant deaths in the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, area after the Three Mile Island accident [see Ernest Sternglass, “The First Casualty at T.M.I.,” The Nation, February 28, 1981, and “The Lethal Path of T.M.I. Fallout,” March 7, 1981], and may have been responsible for the abnormally high infant death rate in the United States following atmospheric nuclear testing in Nevada from 1951 to 1963.
Radiation expert Ernest J. Sternglass warns that damage is possible even at the level of 500 picocuries. “Ever since the early 1960s they have been arbitrarily raising limits on ‘acceptable dose,’ ” he told me. “Those 500 picocuries could destroy the thyroid of developing fetus or small infant…[and that] does not take into account the other fallout elements, such strontium, plutonium and so on.”
One generally accepted protective measure is oral ingestion of potassium iodide. By satiating the thyroid’s natural need for iodine, the chemical prevents the absorption of the radioactive iodine, which then passes through the body. In some areas the sale of potassium iodide is limited to prescriptions; some substitutes may actually be dangerous, so caution is required. Washing fruit and vegetables, drinking bottled water and keeping children and pregnant women indoors when contaminated rain is falling may also help.
A few of the deadly isotopes carried by the cloud are cobalt 60, strontium 90, xenon 133, cesium 137 and plutonium 239, all of which can cause cancer, leukemia and other lethal diseases over a period of days, weeks or years. The wide range of other heavy metals in the Chernobyl fallout indicates that pieces of the reactor structure itself may have disintegrated and been blown out into the atmosphere. If so, the fallout cloud will carry an even more terrifying burden of death.