Contaminated Milk in Drozdyn

Milk from the cows of Natalia Mykolaievna Ogiechivic. In Drozdyn, levels of radioactive particles in food and milk is on average two times higher than the maximum permitted levels. Natalia has a 1.5 year old daughter named Victoria. Her doctor says she has "serious birth defects and heart defects, and its obviously because of Chernobyl'. © Robert Knoth / Greenpeace

As a child, I really didn't like milk. No matter how much my mother tried to add sugar or chocolate to it, I didn't want any. I still don’t like it much — something I can't help thinking about as I come to a remote village in the Ukraine to test milk contamination in the area.

We were about 4 hours drive from Chernobyl, and even here the contamination is detectable — especially in milk, a very important part of the daily diet here.

We knew there would be contamination, but we hoped not to find any. You don't want to measure the milk of these subsistence farmers and tell them that they are poisoning themselves and their children. Long term accumulation of the radioactivity in their bodies is the reason why many children have unusual headaches, lose consciousness, have birth defects.

It took us only one day to find samples of milk that were 5 to 16 times higher than the Ukrainian limits for children, 30 times higher than the control samples we had in Kiev where the markets are closely regulated and regularly checked. I wonder if the mothers here also insist that their kids drink milk in the mornings.

When asked, they said they knew the problems of contamination in the food. Some remember the Chernobyl accident, and the fear at the time that they might all die within a year. They didn't die, but the consequences of Chernobyl have continued, and they've learned to live with it as a part of their lives.

At the local children’s hospital we were told that effects of the accident were getting worse. There are more and more children every year with problems; weak bones, anemia…etc. The ones with more serious problems are sent to the regional hospital; the more serious cases are sent directly to Kiev.

I talked with one of the locals who asked me about our findings. Women were queuing up where we set up our portable station to measure radioactivity in milk. They brought their food and asked us to let them know about our findings. I explained to one of the women what the situation was, that necessary support needs to be given to these communities, that radiation isn't confined to Chernobyl only — there is a much wider affected area. She laughed at my ignorance: “No one will care about us” she said.

I couldn’t answer her, I couldn’t tell her that they will care.

Dimitri Novikov carries his milk

Dimitri Novikov (22), was diagnosed with leukemia almost ten years ago and his health is deteriorating. Most of the work on the collective farm is too heavy for the young man, so he sits around the house most of the day and helps his mother with a few small jobs. After the Chernobyl accident people were evacuated to Rogin, until it became clear that Rogin was also contaminated. Many have left the place; those who stayed live a life in poverty and isolation.

A lady stopped us in front of the hospital with a little kid, four years old. She was crying and asked us if we were doctors, if we could help her. Her little Ivan faints very often. Nobody ever really explained to her what the problem is. Ivan looked at us from his big coat, his face covered because of the cold, everything but his eyes. He was a little shy and did not want to talk to us. I couldn’t help Ivan, I won’t be able to help to any of them. I felt so powerless.

We came there to find milk contamination, and we did. It took our little team only one day to find it. Officials in Ukraine and international institutions know that these areas are still very contaminated, yet they choose to ignore it and do nothing about it.

You see, if it is far from the public eye in a remote village in Ukraine, it is not a problem for them.

This month will be the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident. There are already many scientists and officials saying the consequences are not too bad, that the danger has passed. There is even talk of opening some of the previously excluded areas for agriculture to show that it's over, we can forget about it. They want to open the land for farming, for cattle to graze. Who is going to drink the milk of these cows? Which young mothers will ask their kids to finish their milk? The very people that you and me will never see on TV. They will never be professional spokespeople. Their stories will never be told.

We cannot forget about Chernobyl, what it has done and what it will continue to do many future generations. The accident at Chernobyl could happen again, that is certain. When the Chernobyl plant was first built, it was thought to be the best, the one that would never have any problems — that's always the case, until they do.

Hundreds of kilometers beyond the exclusion zone there are kids losing consciousness every now and again. If they fall when riding their bikes they are more likely to break their bones. Their mothers may think the calcium in milk will make their bones a little stronger, confused by how easily little bones break these days. If only they.

Aslihan Tumer is a nuclear campaigner for Greenpeace International.