Milk Produced Near Chernobyl Still Contains High Levels of Radiation

April 26, 2016 | Joanne Kennell

Chernobyl Memorial

How can fresh milk still be contaminated after 30 years?

30 years ago today (April 26, 1986), the worst nuclear meltdown in history occurred in Chernobyl, Ukraine, killing 31 people and rendering the 30-km-squared zone around the reactor unsafe for humans for at least the next 20,000 years.

Now, according to the results of an investigation carried out by the Associated Press (AP), milk being produced on the border of the exclusion zone has been revealed to contain 10 times the accepted radiation limits.

However, these results are at odds with internal analyses run by the local dairy producer, Milkavita. According to Milkavita officials, their tests — which are said to be conducted every six months — have consistently shown that the traces of radioactive isotopes in their milk are well below safety limits.

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"It's impossible. We do our own testing. There must have been a mix-up," Milkavita chief engineer, Maia Fedonchuk, told AP journalist Yuras Karmanau.

According to Karmanau, the government of Belarus, which received about 60 percent of the contamination that fell following the meltdown, has its eyes set on getting abandoned farmland back in use.

However, if confirmed by more tests, results like this may point to that being a very bad idea.

The farm where the AP got its milk sample is owned by local dairy farmer Nikolai Chubenok and is located on the edge of the Polesie Radioecological Reserve — a 2,200-square-kilometer (850-square-mile) territory of Belarus that adjoins the Chernobyl exclusion zone. It is about 45 kilometers (28 miles) north of the Chernobyl site, and 2 kilometers from the exclusion zone.

After the meltdown, 470 Belarusian towns and villages were evacuated within this zone, but now, locals are slowly starting to make their way back. "There is no danger. How can you be afraid of radiation?" Chubenok told Kermanau.

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Since 2014, Chubenok has been supplying 2 tones (181 tonnes) of milk per day for the local Milkavita factory, according to the AP. Products made from his milk, like cheese, are distributed throughout Belarus and parts of Russia.

The sample of the milk taken from the farm was tested at the state-run Minsk Centre of Hygiene and Epidemiology.

"The state-run Minsk Centre of Hygiene and Epidemiology said it found strontium-90, a radioactive isotope linked to cancers and cardiovascular disease, in quantities 10 times higher than Belarusian food safety regulations allow [...] The Belarusian Agriculture Ministry says levels of strontium-90 should not exceed 3.7 becquerels per kilogram in food and drink [...] The Minsk lab informed the AP that the milk sample contained 37.5 becquerels."

So how could the milk still be contaminated after 30 years? The cows on the farms at the edge of the exclusion zones eat about 9 kg (20 pounds) of grass every day, and that means the small amounts of radiation in the grass can easily build up, explained Ria Misra at Gizmodo.

"In fact, American milk has also seen very small radiation spikes (albeit at a considerably lower size) due to the same process," Misra continued.

Currently, only one sample of Chubenok’s milk has been investigated by the AP and Centre of Hygiene and Epidemiology lab, and the results have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Further tests will be needed to confirm the results.

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