While many rural towns across Eastern Europe face economic struggle, the Ukrainian region of Polesia, 200 miles east of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site, has become something of a boomtown for foragers seeking mushrooms and berries — nearly all of which are contaminated with radiation.
It has become a good, if unlikely, business, and helped Ukraine become a berry exporter to the European Union, University of Maryland historian Kate Brown writes in the magazine Aeon.
Brown notes that in 2015, Ukraine exported 1,300 tons of fresh berries and 17,251 tons of frozen berries to the European market. That is more than 30 times as much as in 2014.
The berry picking brings in money for locals as well. A picker can earn $20 to $30 a day, whereas a local schoolteacher earns $80 a month.
However, Brown also says there could be some hidden costs — the berries end up in the hands of European customers who often do not know they are ingesting foods containing radioactive isotopes. In addition, Brown notes, the berries can be labeled organic, since radioactivity is not covered under common organic designations.
And the locals who are harvesting the berries may be suffering the effects of accumulated radiation. There is evidence of higher rates of certain birth defects and diseases in some of the areas affected by the disaster.