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How Will Power Plant Radiation Affect the Japanese--and Us?

One way to determine what the aftermath of radioactive pollution from the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan will be is to look at what happened in Eastern Europe after Chernobyl exploded in 1986. When talking about Chernobyl in the July 12th edition of the New York Times, Joe Nocera notes that, "Oddly enough, the 25th anniversary of the worst nuclear accident in history has been marked by journalism about animals." But he knows someone who was directly exposed to radiation from the power plant meltdown in the Ukraine.

Her name is Maria Gawronska and she is a native of Poland who moved to New York in 2004. Nocera writes, "She always wears a turtleneck, even on the hottest of days." He discovered this is because her thyroid was damaged by the radiation 25 years ago, when she was 5 years old and she has a scar there from having it removed. Maria lived in northern Poland, more than 400 miles from Chernobyl, but that wasn't too far away for the radiation to reach her. Soon Soviet officials arrived and gave everyone idodine tablets and told them to stay indoors for the next two weeks. Nocera quotes her as saying, "They said it was an explosion but it wasn't dangerous."

Over the last 25 years, there have been a huge number thyroid problems in Poland, and entire hospital wings are now devoted to thyroid disease. Nocera quotes Polish thyroid surgeon Artur Zalewski as saying that his practice had seen a huge increase in thyroid operations since the early 1990s: Some people have cancerous thyroids and others have enlarged thyroids or thyroids that have stopped functioning. It is also possible that increases in childhood leukemia and breast cancer in Belarus and Ukraine can be attributed to Chernobyl.

Nocera writes, "Gradually, her thyroid had become so enlarged that it impinged on her trachea, making it hard to breathe in certain positions. The unsightly growth, of course, was why she always wore a turtleneck. A specialist in New York told her that he had never seen anything quite like it."

She decided to return to Poland, where the problem was so common that surgeons knew how to deal with it. According to Nocera, "Maria told me that while she was (back in Poland), she sought out old friends. As soon as they heard why she had returned, she said, 'They all laughed and pointed to their own scars.' I couldn't help noticing her own small scar. She wasn't wearing a turtleneck."

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