“We have a disaster,” he told the AP in the Ukraine capital, Kiev. “In Belarus, there is no protection of the population from radiation exposure. On the contrary, the government is trying to persuade people not to pay attention to radiation, and food is grown in contaminated areas and sent to all points in the country.”
The milk sample subjected to an AP-commissioned analysis backs this picture.
The state-run Minsk Center 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 test, like others in resource-strapped Belarus, was insufficiently sophisticated to test for heavier radioactive isotopes associated with nuclear fallout, including americium and variants of plutonium.
The Belarusian Agriculture Ministry says levels of strontium-90 should not exceed 3.7 becquerels per kilogram in food and drink. Becquerels are a globally recognized unit of measurement for radioactivity.
The Minsk lab informed the AP that the milk sample contained 37.5 becquerels. That radioactive isotope is, along with cesium-137, commonly produced during nuclear fission and generates most of the heat and penetrating radiation from nuclear waste. When consumed, scientists say strontium-90 mimics the behavior of calcium in the human body, settling in bones.
Milkavita chief engineer Maia Fedonchuk rejected the findings.
“It’s impossible. We do our own testing. There must have been a mix-up,” she said, adding they test samples from every batch of milk they receive from Chubenok and do an “in-depth” analysis every six months. She said the plant’s own lab analysis indicates its overall milk supply contains an average of 2.85 becquerels per kilogram.
Health officials say the danger level posed by low levels of radioactive isotopes depends greatly on length of exposure and individual physiology. Notably, the regional free-trade bloc that includes Belarus and Russia permits higher levels of strontium-90 in goods of up to 25 becquerels per kilogram, still lower than that detected in the AP-commissioned test.
Ausrele Kesminiene, a doctor in the cancer research unit of the World Health Organization, said the consumption of radioactive food is linked chiefly to the development of cancer in the thyroid, a gland in the neck that produces body-regulating hormones. Thyroid cancer is typically not fatal if diagnosed early.
WHO officials say they are dependent on reports from sister agencies in Belarus to alert them to cancer clusters or other signs of unresolved Chernobyl-related dangers. Gregory Hartl, a WHO spokesman in Geneva, said the agency had no authority to regulate or oversee food safety – even products exported to other countries – because that is a domestic responsibility.
“Radiation effects and the development of cancers and the effects on the region are something which go on over a long, long period. So we haven’t seen the end of it,” Hartl said. “Undoubtedly there is going to be some increase in cancers.”
Hartl said WHO officials have not received “any red flags” from Belarus.
Environmentalists critical of Belarus’ Chernobyl cleanup record says that’s hardly surprising, since the government has funded no machinery to scrutinize corrupt practices in the food industry. As a result, they say, no Belarusian food maker has ever been prosecuted for using ingredients or producing goods containing excessive levels of radioactive materials.
Irina Sukhiy, founder of the Belarus ecological group Green Network, said workers in food-industry factories have confidentially told her that ingredients and products are blended to dilute the impact of potentially radioactive ingredients from Belarusian suppliers bordering Ukraine. Such alleged mixing, she said, reduces the level of potentially carcinogenic isotopes in dairy products and processed meat below “the allowable dose, but it is still hazardous to health.”
Read more at Belarus ignoring risks of farming near Chernobyl?