The Story of a Chernobyl Downwinder
by Molly Young Brown
Wendy, we've been working together on the Nuclear Guardianship Project for a few years now, and I've heard bits and pieces of your story. I know that you consider your work for the Nuclear Guardianship Project and Forum to be part of your healing process from the complex and subtle effects of radiation exposure. I'm curious to hear your whole story.
As you know, Molly, I am a Chernobyl Downwinder. I was in Central Europe, on the Berlin corridor, at the time of the 1986 explosion and fire at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. I remained in Berlin, northern Austria and Czechoslovakia for the six weeks following. The last weekend in April, I was sitting on the patio with my partner and assistants after a workshop, when the weight of the radioactive rain water, which had accumulated in the awning overhead, burst and drenched us. We took a bath and washed our clothes. As I drove through the East German corridor a few days later, there was a tremendous noise and a small hole (still unexplained) appeared in the windshield in front of my face. We were not permitted to stop for help or repairs but had to drive on through the rain as the windshield gradually crumbled away.
So you may have been exposed to radioactive rain twice. Did this have any immediate effects?
Yes. Several weeks later in Prague, I developed an "itch", which started as pinpoints on my hips and spread symmetrically until a fiery burning covered my entire body, except my palms, soles and hair. The sensation was intolerable; if bad poison oak is a two on a scale of one to ten, this was a ten. I wanted to remove my skin about a quarter of an inch beneath the surface with my fingernails. It gradually subsided over a nine month period with diminishing flare ups in the sun in subsequent years.
How horrible! Was this a common experience?
Most people in the regions where I was did not have such blatant symptoms. Some did. There were mental, emotional, social and spiritual consequences as well.
What were the mental, emotional, and spiritual consequences in your life?
Although I tried to continue my life as if I were healthy, my thinking was still impaired. After a year, I was weeping most of the time and could sustain neither my primary relationship nor my work. I considered the possibility that I had fulfilled my purpose as a cell in the body of planet Earth (replaced myself with three reproductive offspring), and was thus being sloughed off. An inner voice told me, "Stop everything; devote yourself entirely to healing, as if your life depends on it. It does!"
Sounds like a major choice point . What did you do?
For a full year I simply watched the tide and the sunsets. I watched TV, I sang and danced in prayerful yearning for connection with Life; I saw specialists, straight and alternative, took anti-histamines, applied cortisone, tried homeopathy and body work, grieved for myself and the world in psychotherapy, spent time at a spiritual healing center, and embarked on a program of dietary cleansing, detoxification, hormones, and antidepressants. Except for one deepening friendship (with a woman struck with Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome), I gave up all social contact.
That's amazing to hear, because now you're so engaged. What happened to change this for you?
In 1988, when I was barely functioning and still in seclusion, I was approached by Joanna Macy to join a group she was forming to study the challenge of nuclear waste (the precursor of the Nuclear Guardianship Project). She said, "We need you, because you know!" Being part of a group that recognized the suffering (both personal and across all future time), getting knowledge of the reality of the effects of radiation, and dedicating myself to nuclear guardianship, were integral to my healing.
What did you learn during your healing process?
I had to reprioritize my life. Having become so sensitive, I had to be very careful to avoid over-stimulation.
It sounds like you felt endangered for a long time after the radiation exposure.
Yes, but also stronger in a way. Trial by the "Poison Fire"! I had a profound direct experience of the interdependence of the body, the mind and the spirit. I emerged with a new level of respect for trusting one's own system as the ultimate source of information about one's self.
In a similar way I have increasingly understood myself -- each of us -- to be part of the larger whole, our Earth, our universe. Damage takes place to the whole system. Some of us, like canaries in the mine, show early evidence of the poison and perhaps hints of how to survive. My doctor put it this way: "The same openness that allows the radiation to enter you, is the openness that lets your radiance shine out."
How has this spiritual experience affected you politically?
I felt the connection between the political and the personal. My direct experience with radiation poisoning lead me to make a commitment to protect our descendants from such harm. Acting on this commitment has affected my life not only by what I do, but also by allowing me to feel in community with all life across time.
What are some of the specifics of this commitment you feel?
Well, for one thing, I believe we are responsible to educate each other. We have a right to know about the damaging effects of radiation and what we can do about them. Here I am not speaking of stopping production (which goes without saying to me) but of what we can do to minimize the effects from radiation exposure, the things we can do that may make a difference in how incapacitated we or our children become from radiation exposure.
How many people around the world are suffering from radiation sickness from Chernobyl and other nuclear incidents? Does anyone really know?
Many of us haven't been counted in the statistics of radiation sickness, because the kind of symptoms we have experienced, while disabling, are not as significant as childhood leukemia or still births or cancer or sterility. Nevertheless, there are countless people whose lives have been changed significantly because of radiation exposure. And exposure to continuing low doses of radiation is now known to be much more harmful than previously thought.
The "bad news" about this is that we are all affected; it's not just Them, those who happened to be at Hiroshima, who happened to be near Chernobyl. We are all affected by radiation from accidents like Chernobyl and by the daily, everyday operating releases of the 110 nuclear power plants in the U.S. and the 400 world-wide, and by their rapidly accumulating radioactive wastes. This is the slow, cumulative poisoning of us all. It's difficult for us to take this information in. Besides the political and economic implications of it, we are overwhelmed by not knowing how to take care of ourselves. There is a feeling of helplessness in the face of it.
One illustration: a friend who has been very concerned about the environment is going to have a child. Now he's saying, "It's not as bad as we thought; we can live with it." For him it's too overwhelming to bring a child into the world, knowing the child's chances for well-being are so compromised by something we believe we have no control over. So he tries to reassure himself that "it's not so bad."
That's the bad news. Is there any good news?
There is some information about ways we can protect ourselves. Some people think this information has been...
Perhaps purposely suppressed by people on both sides of the nuclear issue: those promoting nuclear industries...
...who want to deny there is any problem to begin with, from which we need any protection.
That's right. And those who are acting to bring a halt to the entire nuclear cycle fear their cause will not be taken seriously if it is known that we can protect ourselves from radiation damage. It's a real double bind, because the radiation is already here, in the earth, the water, the food chain, taking its toll. It is absurd to withhold or ignore information that could save lives now, out of fear that it might weaken the cause. We must offer information that may help people protect themselves.
To the extent that it is possible.
Yes, there is no cure-all, no bubble of protection. But there is information about what makes the body's living cells more vulnerable, or less vulnerable, to radiation damage. The data is based on studying people who did and didn't survive the Hiroshima bombing. Specifically, there was a medical clinic that was relatively close in. The people in the surrounding area and adjacent buildings died. Both the staff and the patients at this clinic did relatively well. Everyone at the clinic was on a diet low on the food-chain, (grains and vegetables as opposed to animal proteins) and high in vitamin and mineral supplements. This information was one of the bases of the book Diet for the Atomic Age, by Sara Shannon.
How does diet help?
A radioactive particle is unstable. It seeks stability, sending off (radiating) ionized particles, which in turn have the possibility of lodging in other molecules, and leaving them in unstable condition. This unstable state is also known as oxidation and contributes to deterioration of the cells. Today in nutrition literature we read about how to promote the "anti-oxidant capacity" of cells. This is one aspect of what's been learned about how diet affects cells exposed to radiation.
Another factor is that each radioactive element has a chemical structure very similar to a non-radioactive element. So, for example, radioactive iodine is similar to non-radioactive iodine. A radioactive iodine molecule seeks to lodge in the thyroid because that's where we collect iodine. On the other hand, if your thyroid is saturated with healthy iodine, there's less room for radioactive iodine to lodge.
If your body is saturated with healthy calcium, there's less place for the Strontium-90. That's why irradiation is so hard on young children whose bones are building, because they suck up calcium like a sponge. That's why we feed them milk. But the Strontium-90 gets concentrated in the milk in the cows, and then gets further concentrated in the child's bones, the natural place for this calcium look-alike. Cesium 137 is like potassium, so it is absorbed in cell tissue throughout the body.
The purpose of the diet is to allow your body to be naturally protected by being relatively saturated with healthy minerals. Now whether you do that through a supplement or through mineral-rich foods may depend on where your foods come from.
Or where your supplements come from.
Of course. It would be counter productive to take calcium supplements in the form of bone meal from cattle who had eaten grain contaminated by radiation.
Part of what is hard for me is that it seems to be a privilege to have this information and to be able to act on it. It is not generally available yet. I met some kids on the street having a bake sale -- their choir was going to Russia. I bought a brownie and walked away, and then I went back and told the young woman from the youth choir about this diet and where she could get Sara Shannon's book. These are sons and daughters who are of reproductive age but haven't reproduced yet, and they are going to Russia and are genetically vulnerable. The diet there is going to contain animal protein, some of which will be contaminated. And the children living there -- that breaks my heart. Vitamins and minerals are starting to be sent to help detoxify them.
I know from my trips there that it's difficult to get enough to eat if you don't eat meat.
That's right, and you can't control where the grain comes from, and so on. The families in some areas have no choice but to starve or eat radioactive food. It is heart-breaking, but that doesn't mean we should suppress the knowledge.
One level of supplements is recommended for basic protection from the increasing background radiation throughout the world. Another level is recommended as an emergency measure when you're in the thick of things. It's one thing to tell an American who is going to a "hot" area for a month, "Stock up on calcium, saturate your body before you go, and don't drink milk or eat meat there." But if you are a child growing up there...
The detoxification diet that I undertook was one of the first ways I could participate in improving my health. It moved me out of helplessness, and I said to my friends at the time, "Even if the diet isn't effective, the placebo effect gives me a little sense of control." But I do believe it works; it is similar to a diet for heavy metal detoxification -- lead or mercury poisoning. And then of course it's good for your soul because as you move down the food chain, you realize that...
It's good for the environment, for life in the future.
Listen to this: nuclear power produces 15% of the electricity, which happens to be the per cent of electricity in this country that goes to meat production.
You've given me a lot to think about. How should people use this information?
That depends on how close you are to a nuclear site. If you're still regarding yourself as "us-who-feel-compassion" for "them-who-have-been-exposed", you may read it and groan, and put it aside.
If you are not well, however, if your immune system is not functioning properly (you are sick or fatigued too much of the time, or over-reactive with asthma or arthritis), you may have sustained damage that could be attributable to radiation exposure. Of course it is complicated because while the health effects of radiation are known (they include cancerous tumors, leukemia, retardation, chromosome aberrations, and resulting genetic disorders such as neural tube defects, miscarriage, still-birth, sterility), there is never a marker on a particular symptom to say "I was created by such and such an exposure".
Or perhaps your concern for our gene pool, our well-being, and our children will lead you to take this information to heart -- and to the dining table.
Let me end with these words from Ivan Drach, poet and playwright, as quoted in Greenpeace, Jan/Feb 1991. "Nobody at the time thought it would become such a disaster. Nobody here could even envisage that it could develop into such a tragedy. The truth was hidden because officials did not want to spend the billions of rubles it will take to cure this wound.
"Chernobyl opened our eyes. For the first time we understand what sovereignty means, what democracy means, what freedom means. The Ukraine has been sacrificed. This nation, which possesses thousands of years of history, is now on its knees, its radioactive knees. This is not drama; this is tragedy. But the most important thing is the children. Without healthy children, we have no future...Please help the children of Chernobyl."
We are all "children of Chernobyl."
We are all Downwinders. Thank you for telling your story.
Molly Young Brown, MDiv, is a writer, counselor, and educator, living in California. The Nuclear Guardianship Project and four trips to the former Soviet Union as a citizen diplomat and professional trainer are among her endeavors for life on Earth.