Answer to Question #3909 Submitted to "Ask the Experts"
Category: Historical Issues/Applications
The following question was answered by an expert in the appropriate field:
This may seem like an odd question, but I felt maybe I should ask an expert. As sort of a history buff, a friend mailed me an (unrequested) Soviet Union-era army belt and mailbag from Kiev, Ukraine. These are interesting historical items, but given the nature of the area they might be from—the Ukraine—and the region's exposure to radiation from the Chernobyl disaster, I am wondering if they are safe to handle. Should I dispose of these items (give them to a museum or something) or is my concern about contamination unwarranted?
I would not be concerned about the possible radioactive contamination on your Kiev souvenirs. Radioactive depositions from the Chernobyl accident were quite high in areas near the reactor and extended a long ways to the west and northeast from there, but fallout in the Kiev region was much lower. Deposition on soils in the Kiev region ranges from about 10 to 70 kBq/m2 of the "important" radionuclides, 137Cs and 90Sr. (I have some detailed maps of the contamination in the city of Kiev, and it is really surprisingly spotty.) This is outdoors. I would assume your army belt and mailbag were kept indoors, where deposition was probably 1/10 or less of the outdoor deposition, so they might have 1 to 10 kBq/m2. (If you don’t know what a kBq is, don’t worry about it—I’m going to do this as a ratio in a second . . .)
During the days of atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, quite a bit of 137Cs and 90Sr were also released into the air and deposited in soils all over the world. The average soil concentration in North America today as a result of that testing in the 1950s and 1960s is about 1 kBq/m2 of 90Sr and 2 kBq/m2 of 137Cs. This is about the same as I’ve estimated for your Kiev souvenirs. So in practical terms, they are probably not much more radioactive than the dust from your backyard. I suggest polishing them up and displaying them without concern.
I have been to Kiev and its surroundings a number of times (and collected a few keepsakes myself). I will admit that the first times I went, I took along my little pocket dosimeter and even had a radiation-detecting whole-body examination when I came back; results all indicated no hazard. Kiev is a modern and generally pleasant city of about three million residents, with a lot of recent investment and growth. You can read a really good description of the contamination from the accident (with great color maps), and its possible effects, at the website of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation.
Bruce Napier, CHP
Answer posted on 21 July 2004. The information and material posted on this website is intended as general reference information only. Specific facts and circumstances may alter the concepts and applications of materials and information described herein. The information provided is not a substitute for professional advice and should not be relied upon in the absence of such professional advice specific to whatever facts and circumstances are presented in any given situation. Answers are correct at the time they are posted on the Website. Be advised that over time, some requirements could change, new data could be made available, or Internet links could change. For answers that have been posted for several months or longer, please check the current status of the posted information prior to using the responses for specific applications.
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