On International Chernobyl Disaster Remembrance Day, a woman who was just a baby at the time of the nuclear explosion has reflected on the steps her parents took to help keep her safe from radiation exposure.
Millions and millions of people across what are now the territories of Belarus, Ukraine, the Russian Federation and beyond were exposed to the radiation caused by the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986, meaning that millions had their health impacted as a result.
Monika Woods, a literary agent living in New York, was just five months old when Europe fell under the cloud of radiation that leaked from the plant. She and her family were living in Gdansk, Poland, at the time, though they moved to the US a few months later for unrelated reasons.
As she was so young during the events, Monika had no idea of the seriousness of what was unfolding around her. It wasn’t until she was older and when she started doing the maths to see how old she was at the time, that she realised her own health could have been affected.
After speaking to her father about the nuclear explosion, Monika learned that she’d been given iodine as a baby in an effort to try and protect her from the radiation, which her parents secured by standing in line with ration cards. According to Live Science, iodine doesn’t have any direct anti-radiation effects, but could offer some indirect protection by changing how your body behaves to reduce the risk posed by radioactive materials.
Unfortunately, it seems authorities in Poland ‘only had enough [iodine] for children’, so Monika’s parents didn’t have access to the same preventative treatment. The 35-year-old told UNILAD that she doesn’t know ‘what anyone could have really done, aside from [giving out] iodine’, but in reflecting on the way the events were handled, she acknowledged that her parents may not have got sick if they’d had access to iodine.
The impacts of the restrictions on iodine came to light 20 years later, when her parents began to suffer ‘severe health issues’ while Monika stayed healthy.
Monika’s parents’ efforts to protect her from the impacts of the Chernobyl disaster didn’t stop with them getting her iodine, and when they began to experience issues with their health, they kept things relatively underwraps.
Writing in Brooklyn Magazine, Monika noted that she doesn’t know much about what her parents went through when they began to experience the effects of Chernobyl, as they ‘shielded [her] from the worst of their health issues’.
In the years after the explosion, Monika’s mother had to have her thyroid removed, and her father had to undergo surgery to remove cysts on his brain. Monika herself has a tiny nodule on her thyroid, and while it doesn’t affect her, she has been told to monitor it.
Thankfully, both of Monika’s parents are doing well after their treatment, though her mother will be on medication for the rest of her life as a result of the impacts of the explosion, and she has a scar on her throat where her thyroid used to be.
Monika admitted that she is not qualified to comment on the way the Chernobyl disaster was handled, though she said it was ‘really horrible’ that there wasn’t enough iodine for everyone.
You kind of think of iodine now as being easy to get; it’s in salt… but I don’t know the realities surrounding that.
But if there was a big nuclear event now, would everyone get iodine? I don’t know! I would hope so. But this just goes to show you how different things were back then. Of course I’m grateful I got it, but I’m still angry others didn’t.
As she was just a baby when the Chernobyl disaster took place, Monika noted that it’s ‘so hard to fully grasp how awful it was’. She commended author Svetlana Alexeivitch’s book, Voices from Chernobyl, for presenting the disaster in a ‘compoundingly human’ way and expressed her belief that the book should be required reading for students in high schools, saying, ‘I’m just not sure how else the scope of what really happened could be grasped.’
In 2016, the United Nations General Assembly decided to designate today, April 26, as International Chernobyl Disaster Remembrance Day. In its resolution, the General Assembly noted that the consequences of the nuclear explosion are long-lasting and should continue to be recognised.
When it comes to remembering the disaster, Monika noted that as well as affecting the ‘actual lives of many many people’, the explosion at Chernobyl was also an ‘important geopolitical event’, and one that should be thought of ‘in the context of authoritarianism as well as the individual’.
The events of that day in 1986 will continue to impact the world and the people on it for years to come, whether through personal stories, memories, losses or lessons, so on International Chernobyl Disaster Remembrance Day, let’s make sure we continue to honour those experiences.