Milk in parts of Ukraine has radioactivity levels up to five times over the country’s official safe limit – a consequence of the catastrophic Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant explosion that took place over 30 years ago, scientists say.
Scientists from the University of Exeter in the UK and the Ukrainian Institute of Agricultural Radiology sampled cow’s milk from private farms and homes in the Rivne region, about 200 kilometres from the site of the Chernobyl explosion in 1986.
They found levels of radioactive caesium in milk above Ukraine’s safe limit for adults of 100 Becquerel per litre at six of 14 settlements studied, and above the children’s limit of 40 Becquerel per litre at eight sites. The highest levels found were about 500 Becquerel per litre – five times over the limit for adults and more than 12 times that for children.
“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,” said Iryna Labunska, at the University of Exeter in the UK.
“Many people in the area we studied keep cows for milk, and children are the main consumers of that milk,” said Labunska.
“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,” she said.
Some simple protective measures could be taken to bring radiation exposure levels below limits at a cost of less than 10 euros per person per year for the 8,300 people living in the six villages with the highest contamination.
Such measures include applying a caesium binder, called Ferrocyn, to cows, mineral fertilisation of potato fields and feeding pigs with uncontaminated fodder.
The cost of this would decrease each year as radiation levels fall – but if no action is taken, the experts warn that milk contamination will continue to exceed the 100 Becquerel per litre adult limit in parts of Ukraine until at least 2040.
“This situation should also act as a warning and a reminder of just how long the legacy of nuclear accidents can be,” said Labunska.
“Without adequate countermeasures, what may now seem a purely historical event will remain a daily reality for those communities most impacted,” she said.