Radiation Doesn’t Scare Me: Negative health effects vs. relocation trauma

By guest contributor and TEDMED 2015 speaker Holly Morris

This spring marks the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant accident in Ukraine, the world’s worst nuclear accident. Today, Reactor No. 4 simmers under its “sarcophagus,” a concrete cover hastily built immediately after the accident, now cracked, rusted and leaking radiation. Its long delayed “New Safe Confinement,” the structure being built to cover the reactor, has been repeatedly delayed, and is now years overdue. This story of nuclear disaster is in its early chapters.

Inside Chernobyl’s 1000-square-mile “Exclusion Zone,” known simply as “the Zone,” lies the most contaminated land on Earth, including hundreds of unmarked (and unmapped) burial sites where machinery from the clean up after the 1986 accident was dumped. These days, Ukraine’s four other nuclear power plants also dispose of their spent fuel inside the Zone.

But amidst the complicated real-life equations and compromises–where science and politics meet to duke out the viability of nuclear energy–the long, deep, human parable of Chernobyl is often lost. That story is partly embodied in an unlikely community of some 100 people, called “self settlers” who, today, live inside the Zone. Almost all of them are women in their seventies and eighties; they are the last of a group of some 1200 people who defied authorities and illegally returned home after being evacuated.

“Radiation doesn’t scare me. Starvation does," states Hanna, a babushka of Chernobyl (photos credit: Yuli Sollsken)

“Radiation doesn’t scare me. Starvation does,” states Hanna, a babushka of Chernobyl (photos credit: Yuli Sollsken)

One self-settler, Hanna, told me how she snuck through the bushes back to her village in the summer of 1986. “Shoot us and dig the grave,” she told the soldiers who nabbed her and other family members, “otherwise we’re staying.” Then she handed me a chunk of warm salo, raw fat, from her just-slaughtered pig.
Why would they choose to live on deadly land? Were they unaware of the risks, or crazy enough to ignore them, or both? These women see their lives, and the risks they run, decidedly differently.

It’s all about context– the women had already survived Stalin’s famines, and Nazi atrocities, and were simply unwilling to leave their homeland in the face of an enemy that was invisible–radiation.

So long as they were well beyond child bearing, self-settlers were eventually allowed by officials to return. Five happy years, the logic went, is better than fifteen condemned to a high-rise on the outskirts of Kiev. Despite the hardship, the wolves, the radiation – all of the women chose to return to be near the graves of their parents, and babies; to the villages, they say, where they know, exactly, where the sun will rise. There is a simple defiance common among them: “They told us our legs would hurt, and they do. So what.”
The benefits of hardy live-from-the land realities are complicated by an environment laced with radioactive contaminants such as cesium, strontium and americium. The upper estimates of the eventual Chernobyl death toll are in the tens of thousands. Thyroid cancers are sky high, and that Chernobyl evacuees have suffered the trauma of relocated peoples everywhere, including anxiety, depression, alcoholism, and disrupted social networks.

To be clear, the nuclear accident was a miserable tragedy that clobbered the health and economy of a region. But relocation trauma is another, less-examined fallout of Chernobyl. As one Chernobyl medical technician put it about the old people who relocated: “Quite simply, they die of anguish.”

Home is the entire cosmos of the rural babushka, and connection to the land is palpable. Chernobyl babushka sayings go, “Those who left are worse off now. They are all dying of sadness,” “When you live outside your village, you leave your soul,” “Motherland is Motherland. I will never leave.” The surprising truth seems to be that these women who returned home have, according to local officials and journalists, (and the women themselves) have outlived their counterparts who accepted relocation– by some estimates, up to 10 years.

How could this be? Certainly, their exposure at an older age put them at smaller risk. (Younger animals– this includes humans– are more susceptible to the effects of radiation.) But consider a less tangible though equally powerful idea. Does happiness affect longevity? Is the power of motherland, so fundamental to that part of the world, palliative? Are home and community forces that can rival even radiation? I believe so and without exception, the women of the Zone do too.

I’m traveling to Ukraine this spring to screen “The Babushkas of Chernobyl” with the film’s central characters, Hanna Zavorotyna, Valentina Ivanivna and Maria Shovkuta. They continue to gather mushrooms, brew moonshine, and scare off wild boars who would mess with their gardens. Radiation or not, the babushkas are at the end of their lives. In their 80’s now, they are frail, and smaller; it feels as if they are a whisper away from being gone. But their existence and spirit will live on, leaving us wondering about the relative nature of risk, about transformative connections to home, and about the magnificent tonic of personal agency and self-determination– unexpected lessons from a nuclear tragedy.

Check out the Babushkas of Chernobyl trailer:

The Babushkas Of Chernobyl Trailer by Holly Morris on Vimeo.


 

Holly Morris on the TEDMED stage (photo credit: Sandy Huffaker for TEDMED)Watch Holly’s TEDMED talk, Chernobyl: Flourishing lives in the dead zone.

Follow her @HollyMorris and learn more about Holly’s other projects at HollyMorris.com.

Rethinking New Diseases: Q&A with Sonia Shah

Sonia Shah, an investigative science journalist and historian, challenges conventional understandings about the real causes of pandemics. We caught up with her to ask a few more questions.

Why does this talk matter now?

The way we understand the origins of new diseases shapes our response to them—responses that will become increasingly relevant in this age of emerging and re-emerging pathogens, from Ebola to cholera. This talk is based on my forthcoming book—“Pandemic: tracking contagion from cholera to Ebola and beyond.”

Sonia Shah at TEDMED 2014

Sonia Shah at TEDMED 2014

What kind of meaningful or surprising connections did you make at TEDMED?

I met the comedian Tig Notaro, whom I’ve admired for a long time. We shared a table at a book signing—I did not expect that! I’m a science journalist!

How can we learn more about your latest work?

My book comes out in February 2016, and it’s available for pre-order now. I’ve also collaborated with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting to create an app called “Mapping Cholera,” which provides an interactive visualization and narrative about the 1832 cholera outbreak in New York City, which I spoke about in my talk, and the 2010 cholera outbreak in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. And you can find more updates at soniashah.com, too.

Zoobiquitous Medicine: Q&A with Barbara Natterson-Horowitz

Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, Professor of Medicine in the Division of Cardiology at UCLA Medical School, offered an unusual perspective on how human patients, including those suffering from mental illnesses, can be helped by applying insights from animal health. We caught up with Barbara to learn more about how her Zoobiquity idea improves understanding of ourselves and the natural world.

Zoobiquitous Medicine. Barbara Natterson-Horowitz at TEDMED2014. Photo: Sandy Huffaker for TEDMED.
“When I see a human patient, I always ask, ‘What do the animal doctors know about this problem that I don’t know?'” Barbara Natterson-Horowitz at TEDMED2014. [Photo: Sandy Huffaker for TEDMED.]

What motivated you to speak at TEDMED?

After 20 years of practicing cardiology taking care of patients with heart attacks and high cholesterol, I was thrust into the world of veterinary medicine. Seeing my human patients as human-animal patients completely changed how I practice medicine and understand health and disease. Insights from this species-spanning approach to medicine can benefit human and animal practitioners and patients alike. It’s thrilling to introduce this approach to physicians, psychologists, dentists, nurses, etc. and watch their viewpoints transform; the exposure at TEDMED led to a collaboration between a celebrated human breast cancer physician studying a mutation that causes breast cancer in women with a veterinary oncologist working on the same mutation that causes breast cancer in jaguars and other animals!

Why does this talk matter now?

Animals and humans get basically the same diseases. From heart failure, diabetes and brain tumors to anxiety disorders and compulsions, the challenges we face aren’t uniquely human. Discovering why, where, and how non-human animals get sick reveals crucial but hidden clues to human health and illness. For instance:

Breast cancer: When beluga whales began dying of breast and colon cancer in the St. Lawrence estuary, a parallel epidemic of breast cancers in women was discovered in the same region. This species-spanning breast cancer outbreak was ultimately linked to toxins from local aluminum smelting plants.

Obesity: Medical insights into obesity — which challenges physicians and veterinarians alike as animal and human patients are becoming more fat — are generated by a zoobiquitous approach.  Awareness of worsening obesity in domestic and wild animal populations challenges us to consider environmental factors including endocrine disrupting chemicals,  antibiotics, and even climate change as contributors to the “plurality of obesity epidemics.”

Infectious disease: The majority of infections that could create human pandemics come from animal communities. From Ebola to West Nile Virus, SARS to H1N1, some of most worrisome threats to human health and survival are encountered first by veterinarians and animal experts. If we fail to pay attention to these experts and miss out on the opportunity to collaborate, we lose crucial information and increase unnecessary risk for human populations.

How do you see your work fitting into species-survival, wildlife preservation and conservation?

Zoobiquity emphasizes the interconnectedness of animal and human lives and ecosystems. Animals can be sentinels of disease in humans. When horses in Venezuela start to die, it can mean equine encephalitis may threaten local human populations. When cormorants and crows get sick with West Nile virus in Queens and the Bronx, elderly and immunocompromised patients may also be at risk for the virus. On the other hand, humans can be sentinels of disease in animals. Human outbreaks of Brucellosis often lead to identification of sick and suffering animals. The detection of lead poisoning in a child often leads to exposure and disease in local wildlife. Bringing practitioners of animal and human health together encourages the transfer of information from the world of human medicine that is vitally relevant and important to wild animal populations.

What do you hope for the legacy of Zoobiquity? 

Zoobiquity Conferences have now been held across the US and internationally. At these events human health practitioners including physicians, nurses, dentists, psychologists and others come together with animal health practitioners including veterinarians, behaviorists, nutritionists and others to discuss the shared diseases of their different species. I’ve heard some veterinarians joke, “real doctors take care of many species.” Bringing the comparative approach to the human medical community has the power to transform how physicians, nurses, psychotherapists and others understand disease, their patients and the environmental and evolutionary factors that link us all together.  I hope Zoobiquity is successful in bridging the worlds of animal and human health, ecology and evolutionary biology.

Check out our archived Facebook chat with Barbara about species-spanning medicine.