Initial Studies Show Little Radiation, No Health Hazard in Poland, U.S. Expert Says

Times Staff Writer

A U.S. government radiation specialist who flew into Poland on Saturday said his initial readings showed only barely measurable radioactivity in Poland from the Soviet reactor accident at Chernobyl and no evidence of a health hazard.

The findings by Richard Hopper, of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Radiation Programs in Las Vegas, Nevada, are consistent with official Polish statements that contamination from the smoldering Chernobyl reactor 400 miles east of Warsaw declined sharply during the week, and posed no measurable danger.

The Polish government said Saturday that overall contamination from the accident was “much smaller than anticipated” at first, and that “practically no” radioactive iodine remains in the air.


But the statement, issued by the special commission monitoring the fallout, said nothing about iodine in soil and water. It reported for the first time that amounts in milk exceeded an “emergency level” in some areas of northeast Poland.

Elsewhere, the commission said, iodine ranged from nearly zero to 60% of the limit.

The authorities continued to make one-time doses of iodine available to all children aged 16 and under, to block the absorption of radioactive iodine-131, the component of the fallout that officials have identified as their greatest concern.

In addition, the government has imposed an unpublicized ban on the sale of soft drinks until May 15, apparently because water supplies used in their manufacture are thought to be contaminated.

Hopper said an initial survey of the American Embassy in downtown Warsaw found a radiation level of 0.03 millirems per hour. He said this was only about twice the level of natural background radiation from cosmic rays and traces of radioactive minerals in the environment, and represented no hazard.

“I can’t stress enough how small the levels are here,” Hopper said. “I’m seeing less than the limits for a worker leaving a nuclear power plant” in the United States.

Using a sensitive, hand-held scintillator that measures gamma rays, the main form of radiation from the fallout, he said he measured about 0.06 millirems per hour--or four times the natural background--on the car of a U.S. diplomat who had just returned from Bialystok, 100 miles northeast of Warsaw, where Polish officials have said the contamination was heavier.

Given these barely measurable levels, Hopper said he doubts the fallout presented a health hazard at any point last week in Warsaw. However, he said he was not equipped to test water and soil samples with any precision. These would be sent to an EPA laboratory in Las Vegas, he said.

Hopper said he also plans to install several small dosimeters on the embassy grounds to measure general environmental radiation over periods of a week at a time. The dosimeters will also be sent to Las Vegas for analysis.

His findings came the day after the State Department followed several Western foreign ministries in offering to fly children and female dependents out of the country until Polish officials clarify the current levels of radioactivity. Apparently to avoid alarming the population, the authorities have released only sparse and at times conflicting figures for radiation measurements while insisting that there is no significant hazard.

Nearly 100 dependents of West European and Canadian diplomats left earlier in the week, but U.S. Embassy officials said the families of American diplomats have all stayed here.

One member of a special government commission monitoring the contamination told Western reporters in a news conference on Thursday that the highest reading found in Poland early in the week was 500 times above the normal background, in the northern town of Mikolajki.

However, a Polish scientist involved in monitoring the fallout during the past week said that some readings in the Warsaw area were in fact much higher, approaching 5,000 times the natural background on Monday before dropping off.

This implied a radiation level of about 74 millirems an hour, an amount equal to what the average American receives in medical and dental X-rays in a year. Seven hours’ exposure would exceed the 500 millirem dose that many countries, including the United States, accept as the maximum permissible for an individual member of the general public, which is well above the 170 millirem limit for the population as a whole.

Even this high dose is considered too small to produce any immediate health effects. But scientists generally agree that the exposure of many people to such levels of radiation would result in a statistical increase in cancer deaths over several decades.

The scientist, who asked not to be identified by name or institution, said a major problem in measuring the contamination in Poland is its extreme variability from one point to another. He said colleagues who took Geiger counters home with them during the week found high readings in such localized spots in Warsaw as the doormat at the entrance of a large apartment building and one paw of a dog.

For ordinary Poles, however, fear of the invisible contamination seemed to be subsiding with the fallout itself, a relaxation helped by the nearly total absence of any reference to the contamination by state-controlled news media.

Under brilliant spring skies, thousands of Warsaw residents were out shopping, sunning themselves and pushing baby strollers in parks shaded with flowering chestnut trees.

May 3 was Constitution Day, the anniversary of the liberal constitution of 1791 that inspired Catherine the Great in neighboring Russia to put an end to Poland’s experiments with democracy and erase it from the map of Europe for 123 years by dividing the country between Russia, Prussia and Austria.

To many Poles, the date still symbolizes the nation’s struggle for independence from Russia. As such, the anniversary produced a confrontation with police in Warsaw’s old town area, as it has for the past four years.

Several hundred people, emerging from a Mass at St. John’s Cathedral singing the Polish national anthem and chanting anti-government slogans, were met by riot-equipped police who quickly dispersed the crowd without violence.

About a dozen persons were detained.