Chernobyl’s Effects Felt By Brooklyn’s Russian Community

a chimney towers over the sarcophagus that covers the destroyed Reactor No.4 at Chernobyl (credit: Efrem Lukatsky for AP via Brooklyn Ink)

In light of the recent nuclear disaster in Japan, as well as talk by Governor Andrew Cuomo about closing Westchester’s Indian Point nuclear power plant, the long term effects of another historic nuclear meltdown are beginning to be felt right here in Southern Brooklyn.

On April 26, 1986 in Ukraine, which at the time was part of the Soviet Union, Chernobyl nuclear plant’s No. 4 reactor exploded, sending a blanket of radioactive fallout over Europe.

The Brooklyn Ink published a very timely piece last week about how the effects of Chernobyl are being felt in New York over 25 years later. In it, Mike Walker reports that as many as 200,000 people who lived in the three most affected countries, Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, now reside in New York State, with the vast majority living in a handful of Brooklyn neighborhoods like Brighton Beach and Coney Island. Bensonhurst and Bath Beach also have very high numbers of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Because of this, the article goes on to say, the risk of thyroid cancer for men in the Coney Island area is 22% higher than the New York State average and 50% higher than the nationwide average.

From Brooklyn Ink:

As the State Assembly’s first Soviet-born, Russian-speaking member, Alec Brook-Krasny was aware of this thyroid-cancer incidence rate when he was elected to the State Assembly in 2007. Brook-Krasny, a Democrat who represents the 46th District, which includes Coney Island and Brighton Beach, said he started talking to his Assembly colleagues about the Chernobyl-related health issue in his district, and he secured $490,000 in state funding for thyroid-cancer screening.
“They knew that there was a problem, but they never could have imagined that 200,000 people in New York used to live in the area that was affected by Chernobyl,” Brook-Krasny said. The 200,000 figure comes from a study conducted by Dr. Daniel Branovan of the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary, Brook-Krasny said. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, 5,000,000 people lived in areas contaminated by Chernobyl radiation.
Brook-Krasny said the state money was mostly spent on two screening machines. The state government no longer funds thyroid-cancer screening in his district, but Brook-Krasny said he is trying to restore funding. He said the program was popular in his district and even farther from home.
“I was visiting the Ukraine and I was speaking on the radio about the program and people were grateful,” Brook-Krasny. “They said it shows a lot about the compassion of the American people.”

Fortunately, thyroid cancer is treatable if detected early. According to the report, more life-threatening cancers have, so far, not been detected in significant numbers among people who lived in Chernobyl’s nuclear fallout zone at the time of the meltdown.

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