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Researcher Peter Gudde reflects on the legacy of Chernobyl – and other environmental threats

It is hard to think about matters environmental when we are witnessing devastation to life, livelihoods and freedom only 1,500 miles away in Ukraine.

There is no doubt that we are seeing events that have been more than a generation in the making and will affect the lives of so many more for a generation to come. However much we try to get on with our lives, the effects of war only three hours away by plane is showing just how connected we are geopolitically, economically or environmentally.

Ukraine was on our minds 36 years ago for a very different reason. When the EPS-5 button in the control room of Reactor 4 at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was pressed a series of events were initiated that affected Western Europe for decades.

Peter Gudde
Peter Gudde

I remember the concerns in the early Nineties that Welsh lamb could be contaminated with radioactive fallout and following the explosion lamb was banned from sale, with the last restrictions only lifted in 2012. We still monitor gamma radiation levels across the country because of Chernobyl.

We cannot ignore the legacy of chemicals that we have manufactured then accidentally or even deliberately released into the environment. From the radioactive isotopes of the nuclear industry to the chemicals designed to make our lives easier we are exposed every day to substances in our drinking water, in our food and in the air that we breathe.

One of the ‘forever’ chemical groups, PFAS, has recently been identified as widespread in drinking water. PFAS compounds were widely used in household products, forming the coating on non-stick pans, food packaging and cleaning products from the 1940s revolutionising how people lived. But the nature of these chemicals is such that they are extremely persistent in the environment and can build up in animals leading to a range of health effects including thyroid and liver damage, some forms of cancer and birth defects.

Another cause for concern are the air-borne particles found in vehicle exhausts. The smallest of these can find their way deep into the lungs of those living near busy roads with scientific evidence suggesting that exposure can aggravate chronic health conditions particularly in those who already suffer certain forms of heart and lung disease. Long term exposure may also affect the wider populations in ways that we still do not understand.

This means that although we may as a society choose to accept the risks associated with exposure to certain substances that we develop, with some chemicals there may not be an established safe level.

Disasters such as the Chernobyl reactor explosion or cover-ups by chemical companies show that we must remain vigilant, we must hold to account those that risk harming our health and the environment. We must be prepared to apply safety standards based on the best information available and keep reviewing and growing our knowledge so we can make informed decisions.

Finally, and in parallel, we must also recognise that advances in knowledge and developments in technologies or products will form part of the solution to some of the biggest challenges we face.

-- Peter Gudde is an energy adviser and environmental researcher