Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Chernobyl's Lingering Scars



The New York Times

July 11, 2011

Chernobyl’s Lingering Scars


Oddly enough, the 25th anniversary of the worst nuclear accident in history has been marked by journalism about animals. Two magazines, Wired and Harper’s, have published lengthy articles about the rebirth of animal life in the so-called exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine.

All well and good, but given the recent Japanese nuclear accident, wouldn’t you rather know what has happened to the, er, people who were affected by Chernobyl?

I know such a person. Her name is Maria Gawronska. Thirty years old, smart and attractive, Maria is a native of Poland who moved to New York in 2004. I met her through my fiancée maybe four years ago. She always wore a turtleneck, even on the hottest of days.

Maria’s hometown, Olsztyn, in northern Poland, is more than 400 miles from Chernobyl. She was 5 years old in April 1986 when the reactor melted down, spewing immense amounts of radioactivity upwind, where it spread across Ukraine, Belarus and, yes, northern Poland.

“At first,” Maria said, “they said it was an explosion but it wasn’t dangerous.” But within a few days, the Soviet Union grudgingly acknowledged the accident. Maria recalls that everyone was given iodine tablets, and told to remain indoors. She stayed in the house for the next two weeks.

She also remembers hearing people say that it would be years before Poles knew the health consequences of the accident. Among other things, radiation can wreak havoc on the thyroid gland; that is why people take iodine tablets, to minimize the amount of radioactive iodine that their thyroids absorb.

Sure enough, over the course of the last quarter-century, there has been an explosion of thyroid problems in Olsztyn. Maria told me that entire hospital wings are now devoted to thyroid disease. This is no exaggeration. Dr. Artur Zalewski, an Olsztyn thyroid surgeon, confirmed that his practice had seen a huge increase in thyroid operations since the early 1990s. Some people have cancerous thyroids, but many more have enlarged thyroids, or thyroids that have stopped functioning properly.

Dr. Zalewski also cautioned me, though, that there was no scientific proof connecting thyroid disease to Chernobyl. Partly because of Soviet intransigence, and partly because of what The Lancet would describe as “considerable logistical challenges,” epidemiological studies were never begun that might have helped link the disaster to Poland’s thyroid problems.

The studies that have been done have focused on cancer. According to The Lancet, it is possible that increases in childhood leukemia and breast cancer in Belarus and Ukraine can be attributed to Chernobyl. But because of “flawed study design,” these studies are not definitive.

When I e-mailed Maria’s mother, Barbara Gawronska-Kozak, however, she was adamant: “I am convinced that Chernobyl increased thyroid problems.” Barbara, a scientist herself (though not an epidemiologist), told me that this was what the “average citizen of Poland” believed. She herself required a thyroid operation a decade after the accident. Her mother had two thyroid operations. Her best friend had a thyroid operation. An old high school friend recently had a goiter removed. Maria told me that her father was the only family member who had not had a thyroid problem.

Around five years ago, it was Maria’s turn. Gradually, her thyroid become so enlarged that it impinged on her trachea, making it hard to breathe in certain positions. The unsightly growth, of course, was why she always wore a turtleneck. A specialist in New York told her that he had never seen anything quite like it, and that the operation to correct it was high risk and could possibly damage her vocal cords. So Maria decided to return to Poland and have the operation in her hometown. She did so earlier this year.

Just as in Chernobyl’s case, it will be years before we know how the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station will affect the health of those who lived nearby. Although much less radiation escaped, it did leak into the water, and traces have been found in the food supply. It makes one wonder how to deal with nuclear power, which offers the tantalizing prospect of clean energy — along with the ever-present risk of disaster should something go wrong. These are not simple questions — as we are reminded whenever there is an accident like Fukushima Daiichi. Or Chernobyl.

For Maria, at least, the story ends happily. Dr. Zalewski, who operated on her, didn’t flinch when he saw the size of her thyroid. The operation was a success. Her vocal cords are just fine. She has more energy than she has had in years.

Maria told me that while she was in Olsztyn, she sought out old friends. As soon as they heard why she had returned, she said, “They all laughed and pointed to their own scars.”

When I saw her not long after she returned to New York, I couldn’t help noticing her own small scar. She wasn’t wearing a turtleneck.

© 2011 The New York Times Company

Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218.  Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at] verizon.net. Go to http://baltimorenonviolencecenter.blogspot.com/


"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


No comments: