‘Cure’ for Ch­er­nobyl chil­dren: sun, sea, clean air in Por­tu­gal


Anya wasn’t even born when Ch­er­nobyl ex­ploded nearly 30 years ago, but even to­day its ra­dioac­tive fall­out stalks her and other Ukrainian young­sters grow­ing up near the dis­used plant.

The world’s worst nu­clear dis­as­ter sad­dled the sparkly-eyed 16-year-old with chronic car­dio­vas­cu­lar and res­pi­ra­tory prob­lems, thanks to con­tam­i­na­tion that lingers in the air, wa­ter and ground soil around her vil­lage.

A brief break comes each sum­mer when Anya and a few dozen other chil­dren and teens trade their homes for a “clean” hol­i­day on Por­tu­gal’s west coast.

“A month’s va­ca­tion in Por­tu­gal can ex­tend their life ex­pectancy by one or two years,” said Fer­nando Pinho, cit­ing a study by doc­tors at Ivankiv hos­pi­tal, 45 kilo­me­ters (28 miles) from Ch­er­nobyl.

Pinho, 59, heads “Blue Sum­mer,” a pro­ject started in 2008 by em­ploy­ees of the Lib­erty Se­guros in­sur­ance com­pany to give Ukrainian chil­dren a chance to re­duce the lev­els of ra­dioac­tive cae­sium that creep into their sys­tems at home.

Sim­i­lar pro­grams are also held in Bel­gium, France, Ger­many, Ire­land, Italy and Spain, of­fer­ing a “cure” of sun, sea, clean air and good food to sev­eral hun­dred young Ukraini­ans each sum­mer.

Thirty-four of them came to Por­tu­gal this year. “Blue Sum­mer” fi­nances their trans­port and health in­sur­ance and they stay with vol­un­teer host fam­i­lies, who cover their ev­ery­day needs.

‘In­vis­i­ble evil’

“I dis­cov­ered the ocean here, its won­der­ful smell. I never tire of look­ing at it,” said Anya in near per­fect Por­tuguese.

It is her sev­enth sum­mer in the sea­side town of Peniche, north of Lis­bon, in the bright, white villa of Maria Joao and Her­nani Leitao, her “sec­ond fam­ily,” near sand dunes as far as the eye can see.

On April 26, 1986 when one of the four re­ac­tors ex­ploded at Ch­er­nobyl in then-Soviet Ukraine, it spewed out huge quan­ti­ties of ra­dioac­tive par­ti­cles — some es­ti­mates say 200 times that of the nu­clear bomb at Hiroshima.

Thirty-one deaths have been di­rectly at­trib­uted to the catas­tro­phe, though the U.N. Ch­er­nobyl Fo­rum says the ra­di­a­tion could even­tu­ally cause up to 4,000 deaths. The en­vi­ron­men­tal watchdog Green­peace, mean­while, says the death toll from ra­di­a­tion could even­tu­ally hit 100,000 to 400,000 in Ukraine, Be­larus and Rus­sia.

Aside from en­vi­ron­men­tal dam­age, long-range ef­fects in Ch­er­nobyl re­gion in­clude thy­roid and other can­cers, leukemia, heart and liver prob­lems, de­for­ma­tions, cataracts, im­mune sys­tem trou­bles and men­tal health is­sues.

The U.N. Ch­er­nobyl Fo­rum, in fact, calls the men­tal health im­pact “the largest public health prob­lem cre­ated by the ac­ci­dent,” ac­cord­ing to the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion web­site.

To­day it may be the par­ents who have the most health prob­lems but “to­mor­row it will be the chil­dren’s turn,” said Pinho.

Bog­dan, nine, from the town of Ivankiv, has so far shown no signs of health prob­lems. It is his first trip to Por­tu­gal and though he doesn’t speak the lan­guage, he quickly found ways to com­mu­ni­cate with Jonas, the 11-year-son of his host fam­ily in Santa Iria de Azoia near Lis­bon.

“He was a lit­tle shy at first but our cats helped break the ice,” said Jonas’ mother An­abela Pereira, 43, whose own bout with thy­roid can­cer, di­ag­nosed in 2007, has made her sen­si­tive to the risks in Ch­er­nobyl.

“Ra­dioac­tiv­ity is an in­vis­i­ble evil that wreaks havoc,” she said.

In the Ch­er­nobyl area alone, more than 6,000 chil­dren have been di­ag­nosed with thy­roid can­cer and the num­bers are ex­pected to rise, ac­cord­ing to UNSCEAR, the U.N. Sci­en­tific Com­mit­tee on the Ef­fects of Atomic Ra­di­a­tion.

‘Deathly si­lence’

Anya, from Mus­siki, about 40 kilo­me­ters (25 miles) from Ch­er­nobyl, grew up eat­ing fruits and veg­eta­bles grown in the fields near the mod­est home she shared with her mother and lit­tle sis­ter Anas­tasiya, be­fore start­ing stud­ies in the cap­i­tal Kiev.

Not far away from her vil­lage, hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple were evac­u­ated from a 30-kilo­me­ter zone around the nu­clear plant — an area that still has re­stricted ac­cess to­day.

Anya’s host “fa­ther,” Leitao, 63, an ac­tive mem­ber of “Blue Sum­mer,” ac­tu­ally trav­elled to this ex­clu­sion zone in 2010.

“I saw de­serted vil­lages where there was deathly si­lence, aban­doned class­rooms still stocked with books and dolls left by chil­dren,” he said.

He showed photos of Pripyat, a ghost town 3 kilo­me­ters from the Ch­er­nobyl plant where time stopped af­ter the 50,000 res­i­dents were evac­u­ated.


Ukrainian Anas­ta­sia, 11 years old, says good­bye to her host fam­ily, who re­ceived her for the last two years for va­ca­tions away from her home­town si­t­u­ated near the in­ac­tive Ch­er­nobyl nu­clear power sta­tion, at Lis­bon Air­port on Aug. 16.

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