Chernobyl And The Absurdity of Thresholds

Today is the 25th anniversary of the beginning of the  Chernobyl disaster. I was in Vienna, Austria at the time. More than 1,000 km away — but still not at a “safe” distance, as we eventually found out.

We did not hear about the disaster until several days later. The Scandinavians had sounded alarm bells when they suddenly observed radioactive precipitation. For several more days, the Soviet Union denied any involvement. The Kremlin then proceeded to downplay the true scale of what was going on at the plant, which was engulfed in a radioactive inferno straight from hell.

Meanwhile, things were getting scary for us. Heavy rain was falling in Vienna and many areas in Europe. The news got worse from hour to hour. Within days, the radioactive fallout could be measured in grass, vegetables and in dairy products.

Soon thereafter, radioactive pollutants from Chernobyl could be measured in many food products. In some, they exceeded legal limits. Whether these products were really discarded (and where) will forever remain a mystery. Who could tell for certain?

One particular method by which the contamination problem was handled was fascinating:  suppose a dairy plant has milk with levels of cesium-137 (also spelled “caesium”) above the legal threshold. Rather than throwing out good money, it is perfectly legal to simply mix the contaminated milk with milk from an uncontaminated area. Voila! No costs for discarding the radioactive batch. And the product can still be sold legally. In other words, the mass of consumers becomes a nuclear waste disposal without even knowing it.

It turned out that concentrating certain foodstuffs also concentrates the radioactive contaminants. For example, if dry milk powder is made from milk contaminated with Cs-137, the concentrations can get quite high. Dry milk powder is the main component of baby formula. What to do with all the contaminated baby formula?

Some of the contaminated batches were reportedly sent to Third World countries. The “rationale”: slightly contaminated formula is better than no formula, and besides: since there was less “overall” exposure on other continents, the people there would still receive less than the maximum “allowable” dose.

Which brings me to an important point. Who decides what “allowable” and “acceptable” exposure thresholds are?

We could go into how the observational data was obtained, and how the “scientific consensus” was formed. But it would be long-winded and complex. Perhaps this is good subject for a book I might write one day. (It would shock most of you).

If there is truly a scientific consensus, why do the legal limits vary from country to country?

Then, there’s the problem with all thresholds. At Fukushima, there is now a forbidden zone 20 km around the reactors. Tens of thousands of people have unceremoniously been kicked out of their homes and businesses and are not allowed to return.

So if a house is 19 km from the plant, one is ordered to leave. If a house is 21 km away, it is supposedly safe and everyone should be happy? (Because some force of magic stops radioactive stops at the 20 km mark?)

Let’s say the Great Leader (based upon the esteemed opinions of highly respected experts selected by the Great Leader) sets the legal threshold of I-131 in water to a certain level.  Does this mean we are perfectly safe if we drink just as much water to consume only 99% of the legal level? But if we ingest 101%, we might suddenly keel over?

Isn’t the same water used to make coffee for a 90-year old the same that’s used to make infant formula, which may be the main source of water and calories for a baby?

Is there is no difference between heavy-set grandpa who eats sushi only on occasion, and a young woman who weighs half of grandpa, is pregnant and loves seafood?

In addition to the whole demented absurdity surrounding thresholds, there is another inherent problem. Numbers tend to promote a sterile, dehumanizing viewpoint. The root data are just based on statistical evidence, but worthless when viewed from the level of an individual human being affected by real life consequences.

Let’s say contamination with a certain substance causes cancer deaths to 1/1000th of a percent in the population. You might say: Okay, that’s a very small risk, considering that 20% of the population in industrialized countries dies from cancer anyway. Therefore, 1/1000th of a percent is quite acceptable.

But 1/1000th of a percent would mean 3,000 deaths in the United States. Now picture 3,000 people. Can you look each them into the face and tell them that their death from cancer is “acceptable” to you?

What if you or one of your loved is among this group of 3,000? Ah, you see? Most likely, you would not find this to be quite acceptable. In the end, what is acceptable (or not) gets rather personal.

Today, there are still hundreds of farms in Britain on which sheep milk contains more than the “acceptable” levels of radioactive contamination. Just a few weeks ago, wild boar in Austria were found to be contaminated beyond the legal thresholds. (The investigators had bought the contaminated boar’s meat off the shelf, in regular stores). And there are similar problems with some reindeer in Scandinavia.

How many lives did the Chernobyl disaster take? Estimates range from several thousand additional cancer deaths to several hundred thousands. (A recent paper on the subject was presented by Lisbeth Gronlund here).

But just like thresholds and maximum exposure levels, these numbers are not based on real, direct hard evidence, but rather on theories, assumptions, inferred conclusions and speculation.

Unfortunately, the whole truth will never be known.

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Journalist and media professional currently based in Los Angeles, California. Focusing on science and technology.