A quarter-century after the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine, some 14 percent of the land area in neighboring Belarus remains contaminated with radioactive cesium.
As of January, levels exceeding 37,000 becquerels per square meter were recorded. As such, the land is designated as "polluted."
Authorities in Belarus go to great lengths to track radioactive materials in the food chain, particularly in areas of continuing concern.
A dairy processing plant in Khoiniki, located 60 kilometers north of Chernobyl, buys up the raw milk taken from cows raised in nearby pastures.
When a tank truck carrying the milk arrives, the vehicle is put through an automatic wash to prevent radioactive materials from entering the plant, and then the load is tested for radiation.
A special department analyzes radioactive materials contained in the raw milk and processed products.
"It is rare for cesium to exceed government standards," said a woman who works there. "The problem is strontium 90."
Strontium 90 has a half life of about 29 years. It can easily attach to calcium so it tends to accumulate in bones. Because it is much more difficult to remove from the body than cesium, strontium is believed to trigger bone cancer and leukemia.
On a wall of the plant is a graph that shows changes in radiation contamination of raw milk according to region over the past seven years.
The level of strontium zigzags on the graph. In some years, it falls below the government's safe standard of 3.7 becquerels per liter, and in other years it is double that level.
Raw milk that has radiation exceeding the government standard is processed into butter if the level falls within a certain range. The butter is also checked for radiation.
Research has shown that while 80 percent of strontium and cesium is transferred to powdered skim milk, only 1 to 4 percent of those radioactive materials are transferred to butter.
There are other radiation testing facilities in contaminated areas of Ukraine.
At the Ministry of Health's sanitary and epidemiological station in the restricted entry zone near the Chernobyl nuclear plant, Oleksandr Tsymbalyuk, a doctor who heads the station, placed honey on a spoon.
"Try some of this," Tsymbalyuk, 30, said.
The honey was taken from an experimental bee hive set up outside the station. The level of radiation in the honey was below the government standard.
A thick notebook contained data on radiation levels according to village and the vegetable harvested.
"Even in the restricted entry zone with high radiation levels, almost all of the vegetables have radiation levels below the government standard, with the exception of mushrooms," Tsymbalyuk said.
Internal radiation exposure is almost nonexistent among the people who live and work in the restricted zone.
In the past, about 2,800 people were tested for internal exposure using whole body counters. Of that number, only four people had radiation levels above the government standard.
Checks into the dietary habits of those four led researchers to conclude that they ate mushrooms and fish, which are both prone to high levels of contamination.
"Internal radiation exposure can be prevented if people know what food items to avoid," Tsymbalyuk said.
Belarus also has a system to check for internal exposure caused by the intake of food as well as to manage the health of people suspected of having been exposed to radiation.
There are nine Children's Rehabilitation and Wellness Centers in Belarus. Each center can take in several hundreds of children at a time from the contaminated areas.
Some 80,000 children are eligible for treatment and each has the right to spend about one month each year at a center at no cost.
One such center is located in the outskirts of Minsk, the capital.
A 16-year-old girl named Olya was being tested for internal exposure using a simple whole body counter.
The results came in after about five minutes. She showed no exposure to radioactive materials above the government standard.
Svetlana Kostritsa, who is in charge of medical care at the center, said, "Even if high radiation levels are detected, it will have left the body by the time the child leaves here after undergoing treatment."
Children live in dormitories and receive extensive care, including health checkups that cover the thyroid gland, treatment, massage, aromatherapy and electromagnetic treatment.
They drink herb tea and mineral water and eat health foods not contaminated by radiation. They can also attend classes to keep up with their school work and are told to exercise.
Even after children leave the center, they are given safe food at school meals for breakfast and lunch.
There is also mobile radiation testing equipment in Belarus.
Border patrol units use vehicles that come equipped with simple whole body counters as well as equipment that can test radiation levels in foods.
One border patrol official said, "The equipment allows us to determine which food caused the internal radiation exposure. This is very convenient for residents because we can go to any small village in this vehicle."
So far, about 20,000 people have been tested.
Radiation testing equipment has also been installed in schools, allowing for daily testing of radiation levels in food.
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