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For some macabre reason, man has always had a fascination with his own death, and thus it should come as no surprise that something that has the power to destroy all life on this planet so fascinates us. On April 26, 1986 the Chernobyl nuclear power plant had a fatal meltdown which caused a massive explosion, and fires that lasted for days sending a cloud of radiation over Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and onto other parts of Europe.[i] Only two people died that first night, but over the next few weeks, 28 people would lose their lives due to radiation poisoning.[ii] The Soviet Union, one of the greatest powers in the world at the time, did not begin to respond for a full 24 hours because they could not understand the magnitude of what had happened, and once they did they ordered the full evacuation of the town of Pripyat, which had supported the plant.[iii] Once the evacuation order was given, in less than three hours a bustling town of 50000 people became a ghost town.[iv] While the death toll from Chernobyl has been exaggerated over the years, it is estimated that less than 50 people died from causes directly linked to Chernobyl’s explosion, but since then the rate of thyroid cancer in the region among children has spiked to over 7000.[v] Other cancers have also been more common in the area since 1986, but scientists cannot directly link them to radiation exposure. It has been 28 years since the Chernobyl disaster, and entry into a 30km area around the plant still requires permission from the Ukrainian government, and a full body scan to check for radiation before leaving.[vi] If the words Radioactive Contamination fill you with dread, congratulations, you are an intelligent human being. Radioactive contamination is when radioactive materials enter the environment, and other areas where they shouldn’t be.[vii] Pollution from radioactive materials can have massive detrimental effects on human health and the environment; the most extreme of which is arguably death, but the diseases that can be contracted due to radiation poisoning may be worse. Pollution from radioactive materials comes from a variety of sources, and many of them are manmade.
Radiation sickness is one of the most severe health effects of exposure to radiation. Radiation poisoning occurs from excessive exposure to ionizing radiation.[viii] Early signs of radiation poisoning include nausea, vomiting, and spontaneous bleeding from the nose, mouth, and rectum.[ix] Other symptoms include an extreme reddening of the skin exposed to radiation, hair loss, and extreme fatigue.[x] The greatest danger of radiation lies in its effects on our immune systems and our very DNA. Radiation kills the white blood cells in our blood, which are our main defense against infections, viruses, and other diseases.[xi] As mentioned earlier, exposure to radiation also leads to an increased risk of different types of cancer. We know this because between 1945 and 1962 countries were testing nuclear weapons in the open air, and this lead to an increase in cancer in areas where tests were conducted, and in fact the United States government admitted their fault and provided financial recompense to people who were affected by those tests.[xii] Ultimately, the more radiation that you are exposed to the more severe the problems that you will experience. High levels of radiation lead to radiation poisoning, and death. Lower doses increase your risk of acquiring cancer. Radiation has also been linked to the possibility of genetic mutation in both humans exposed to radiation and their offspring.[xiii]
The effects of radioactive contamination on the environment are also severe. For example, in the days immediately after the Chernobyl incident all of the pine trees in the surrounding area died.[xiv] Needless to say, scientists have been examining the effects of radiation on wildlife at Chernobyl for years, and since the disaster at Fukushima, you know where another nuclear power plant had a meltdown, they have also been examining wildlife in Japan. What they have found is that unless the radiation dosage is high enough to instantly kill different animals it can take years to see effects that are taking place.[xv] They have also discovered that birds in the region have smaller brains than normal, and are developing eye cataracts, and that insects in the area are behaving abnormally.[xvi] Then there’s the fact that if soil is contaminated with radiation, anything that grows in that soil is contaminated as well. President Franklin Roosevelt once said “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” While the meaning behind that statement is something that everyone should take to heart, I would counter and say that not knowing what effects radiation is having on marine and land wildlife upon which we rely for food is something worth at least worrying about. Should we consider doing something as dangerous as relying on nuclear power with the danger of unknown effects of nuclear contamination? I am wise enough to know I’m not wise enough to answer that question.
There are many sources of radiation in our daily lives. Some are simple things that we probably use every day, and don’t even think about the fact that they produce radiation.
“Ionizing radiation becomes pollution if it fills a particular environment with high-levels of electromagnetically charged particles or ions. The effects of ionized particles in the human body depend on how far or near the human is to the Electro Magnetic Field source. A person who accidentally touches the electric energy power of an open electrical wire receives a surge of electric current in his body called electric shock, because he touched the nearest source. In a state of pollution, we receive these electromagnetic shocks in low frequency doses as they are released in the environment”[xvii] Sources of radiation can range from cell phones and home appliances to nuclear weapons testing and experimental research.[xviii] While it is true that the radiation coming off of a cell phone is much, much smaller than that coming from a nuclear power plant still the radiation is there, and we sleep, eat, walk, drive, and do everything else in our daily lives with our cell phones glued to us. Thus exposing ourselves to radiation 24/7. We are in contact with radiation every day of our lives.
Man has a fascination with radiation. Countless books, movies, and video games have been created over what might happen if a radioactive event occurred that truly altered the world. On one hand we should be proud that we were the species smart enough to be able to split the atom and harness the power of radiation for our own ends. On the other, we need to consider the costs, both present and future, of that power. While people may love playing games like Fallout, or Metro 2033, do we really want to one day live in a radioactive wasteland?
About the Author
Dominick Principe is a graduate of Rowan University with dual Bachelor Degrees in Elementary Education and Writing Arts. He is a prolific reader who devours any book put before him, and feels that life is one great long book without an end. He fills his hours constantly exploring new information, and seeking to educate himself in the ways of the world. He puts all of that knowledge and his passion for learning to good use teaching English as a second language to students of all ages. When his nose isn’t buried in a book, or in class teaching, then he can generally be found typing away at his computer working on some random piece of writing that he was inspired to do.
[i] “Chernobyl Then and Now: 28 Haunting Images from Nuclear Disaster.” – RT News. Russia Today. Web. 17 Nov. 2014. <http://rt.com/news/155072-chernobyl-images-now-then/>.
[ii] “Chernobyl Accident 1986.” Chernobyl. Web. 17 Nov. 2014. <http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Safety-and-Security/Safety-of-Plants/Chernobyl-Accident/>.
[iii] “Chernobyl Then and Now: 28 Haunting Images from Nuclear Disaster.” – RT News. Russia Today. Web. 17 Nov. 2014. <http://rt.com/news/155072-chernobyl-images-now-then/>.
[iv] “Chernobyl Then and Now: 28 Haunting Images from Nuclear Disaster.” – RT News. Russia Today. Web. 17 Nov. 2014. <http://rt.com/news/155072-chernobyl-images-now-then/>.
[v] “How Many People Have Been Killed by Chernobyl?” Slate Magazine. Web. 17 Nov. 2014. <http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/explainer/2013/04/chernobyl_death_toll_how_many_cancer_cases_are_caused_by_low_level_radiation.html>.
[vi] “Ben Lovejoy.” Ben Lovejoy. Web. 17 Nov. 2014. <http://www.benlovejoy.com/journeys/chernobyl/exclusion/>.
[vii] “What Is Radioactive Pollution?” What Is Radioactive Pollution? Web. 17 Nov. 2014. <http://www.thebigger.com/biology/pollution/what-is-radioactive-pollution/>.
[viii] “Radiation Sickness: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia.” U.S National Library of Medicine. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Web. 17 Nov. 2014. <http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000026.htm>.
[ix] “Radiation Sickness: 8 Terrifying Symptoms.” CBSNews. CBS Interactive. Web. 17 Nov. 2014. <http://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/radiation-sickness-8-terrifying-symptoms/>.
[x] “Radiation Sickness: 8 Terrifying Symptoms.” CBSNews. CBS Interactive. Web. 17 Nov. 2014. <http://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/radiation-sickness-8-terrifying-symptoms/>.
[xi] “Radiation Sickness.” Symptoms. Web. 17 Nov. 2014. <http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/radiation-sickness/basics/symptoms/con-20022901>.
[xii] “Radiation Exposure and Cancer.” Radiation Exposure and Cancer. Web. 17 Nov. 2014. <http://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancercauses/radiationexposureandcancer/index>.
[xiii] “The Genetic Effects of Radiation.” United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation. Web. 17 Nov. 2014. <http://www.unscear.org/docs/reports/1958, 13th session (Suppl. No.17)/1958final-4_unscear.pdf>.
[xiv] “Some Birds Adapt to Chernobyl’s Radiation.” Science News. Web. 2 Dec. 2014. <https://www.sciencenews.org/blog/wild-things/some-birds-adapt-chernobyl’s-radiation>.
[xv] “Will Fukushima Mutate Sea Life? : DNews.” DNews. Web. 17 Nov. 2014. <http://news.discovery.com/earth/oceans/will-fukushima-mutate-sea-life-130828.htm>.
[xvi] “Some Birds Adapt to Chernobyl’s Radiation.” Science News. Web. 19 Nov. 2014. <https://www.sciencenews.org/blog/wild-things/some-birds-adapt-chernobyl’s-radiation>.
[xvii] “Radiation Pollution: What Are the Sources and Remedies?” Bright Hub. Web. 17 Nov. 2014. <http://www.brighthub.com/environment/science-environmental/articles/91518.aspx>.
[xviii] “Radiation Pollution: What Are the Sources and Remedies?” Bright Hub. Web. 17 Nov. 2014. <http://www.brighthub.com/environment/science-environmental/articles/91518.aspx>.