Written By: Dr. Shantala Priyadarshini, BAMS, MS (Shalakya)
Chernobyl’s 15th anniversary- This day the 26th of April marks the 15th anniversary of the world’s worst technological disaster-Chernobyl and even today humanity is – paying heavily for this. We are frantically seeking answers to eliminate some consequences created by this accident and to relieve the suffering of those affected directly or indirectly.
Chernobyl- in 1986 the name of a once obscure Soviet plant became a global household word, a new entry on the list of late-20th century technological accident and a rallying cry for all those who fear and oppose nuclear power. This explosion and fire that destroyed reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl plant in the Ukraine spread radioactive fallout around much of the world It’s time every intellect asked themselves ‘is it appropriate’ before adopting any new wonder drug or technology as an answer to challenges faced by modern man.
Remember the words of President John F. Kennedy when he spoke about the impending dangers that could be caused by nuclear energy being misused or wrongly utilized. Kennedy said “the number of children and grandchildren with cancer in their bones, with leukemia in their blood, or with poison in their lungs might seem statistically small to some, in comparison with natural health hazards, but this is not a natural health hazard–and it is not a statistical issue.
The loss of even one human life, or the malformation of even one baby–who may be born long after we are gone–should be of concern to us all. Our children and grandchildren are not merely statistics toward which we can be indifferent.” Though people are familiar with both the terms Ayurveda and Chernobyl the connection would be beyond comprehension. Ayurveda for many only means an ancient system of medicine, which originated in India some 5000 years ago.
But one should also note that Ayurveda – that has stood the test of time – is a system of medicine suitable not only for the future but also helps eliminate suffering today from all over the world. Principles of this scientific art could be the best method to be adopted to achieve perfect health for one and all. Recently, Ayurveda was of great help in alleviating the suffering of the Chernobyl victims. Here an attempt is made to discuss some problems of Chernobyl how the timeless Ayurveda helped and continues to help with a modern tradegy.
That bright summer spring morning, a Saturday, in 1986, some people in Belarus (near Chernobyl) came out on rooftops to enjoy morning air instead they suffered from nuclear tan caused by the thickly polluted air from the exploded reactors in Chernobyl. A few hours latter, they were taken away in an ambulance, convulsing with uncontrollable vomiting. Soon many were coughing, throwing up and complaining of headaches and a metallic taste in their mouth.
This, which started then, is still having its effects not only on the environment but also on the life of so many all around the world. There is a disturbing charge made, contrasting to the widely accepted belief that only 31 persons died from exposure to high radiation levels. Vladimir Chernousenko, Scientific Director of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences’ Task Force for the Rectification of the Consequences of the Accident, in his 1991 book Chernobyl, Insight from the Inside, dispels this myth, asserts that between 7,000 and 10,000 volunteers have already died from such high intensity exposure.
But his most serious charge is that the accident released the lethal contents of 80% of the reactor core (a total of 192 tons) rather than the 3 % figure announced to the world. This means that the true extent of the potential damage had been understated by orders of magnitude! The radiation released was roughly equivalent to the explosion of one thousand Hiroshima bombs says one report.
The total radioactivity of the material released from the reactor was estimated to be 200 times that of the combined releases from the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, according to a 1995 World Health Organization (WHO) report on the health consequences of the Chernobyl accident. We could summarize the problems under various heads as – ecological effects of radiation on soil, water and air; health hazards, and socio-economic problems.
Effects on environment
During the estimation of radio-ecological research of the Chernobyl catastrophe the main factors to be considered are: caesium 137, and & cesium 134 the most significant long-term radionuclide contaminant emitted during the Chernobyl explosion, has a half-life of approximately 30 years. Even its practical effect on agricultural and forestlands is estimated to range between 8 and 20 years. Iodine-131 with a half-life of eight days; and several plutonium isotopes with half-lives ranging from 13 to 24,400 years.
About 85% of the total release consisted of radionuclides with half-life less than one month, 13% with half-lives of several months, 1% with half-lives of about 30 years, and 0.001% with half-life more than 50 years. At first, the bulk of the emissions settled on more than 100,000 square kilometers -mainly concentrated in the three Soviet Republics of Byelorussia, the Ukraine and Russia. The refusal of the Soviet authorities to recognize the true extent of the contamination of farmland spread radiation illness to all the former Soviet republics.
Cs -137 continues to stay in the upper ground level is potentially accessible for plants for a very long time. Sr-90 -half transformed in free form also could be easily accessible for plants &, is highly capable of getting included in the food chains of humans, (bio-magnification) to get into body, get accumulated there, raising the risk of health. It has already been discovered that grains potatoes milk etc. has presence of the above in higher concentration than what is safe.
People still living near the Chernobyl power plant continuously obtain contaminated wood – a major repository for radionuclides – for their own use or to sell as building material or firewood. It has also been reported that contaminated food has been exported from the polluted regions, processed elsewhere and re-imported as clean food. Such activities have contributed to the continued spread of radionuclide contamination across the affected countries and have increased the exposure of the general population to the dangers of radioactivity.
Huge tracts of formerly productive agricultural and forestland have been rendered uninhabitable and unusable for generations as a result of the Chernobyl disaster. The poisoning of the land has created dire health problems and economic devastation. Ukraine and Belarus were some of the worst affected areas, with water, soil, food being contaminated by dangerously radioactive material. While Belarus received about 70% of Chernobyl’s radioactive fallout covering 20% of it’s land.
Over 1.5 million people including 160,000 children became victims of radiation poisoning, birth defects, leukemia, cancer, thyroid disease, anemia, loss of vision and appetite, depressed immune system, now called ‘Chernobyl AIDS’.
Perhaps the group most at risk from its exposure to radiation following the explosion was the group involved in extinguishing the fire itself and undertaking immediate recovery work. They have become known as the “liquidators”. According to WHO, however, medical monitoring of the liquidators within the three affected countries is already indicating growing morbidity (illness, disease, invalidity) and mortality rates among this group.
WHO IPHECA figures suggest that there are some 800,000 liquidators in total: The main health concerns for the liquidators include cardiovascular and heart diseases, lung cancers, gastrointestinal inflammation, tumors and leukemia. Stress and anxiety about whether they have been affected may also be a significant factor to account for the increase in disease in addition to the liquidators’ exposure to radiation itself. Children, especially those born between 1981 and 1987, are the most susceptible to developing Chernobyl-related diseases.
Both children and embryos exhibit a particular sensitivity to the effects of radiation. Of children’s diseases related to Chernobyl, thyroid cancers have seen the sharpest increase and are of the most serious concern. It has been stated that it has increased by 100 times pre accident level. UNICEF has assessed global statistics for Belarus between 1990 and 1994 and has noted significant increases in many types of health disorders of the child population.
Disorders of the nervous system and sensory organs have increased by 43 per cent, blood circulation illnesses by 43 per cent, disorders of the digestive organs by 28 per cent, disorders of the genito- urinary system by 39 per cent, disorders of the bone, muscle and connective tissue system by 62 per cent, illnesses of the hemogenic (blood producing) organs by 24 per cent, iron-deficiency anemia by 10 per cent, endocrine system disorders by 8 per cent, diabetes by 28 per cent, congenital heart and circulatory diseases by 25 per cent and malignant tumors by 38 per cent since 1988.
In the contaminated zones the divorce rate is higher, there are more problems in relationships between parent and child, and there is more alcoholism compared with the levels in a control group from non-contaminated areas. Furthermore, the social system is increasingly disintegrating as the young try to leave. According to UNESCO surveys, children who live in the contaminated zones in Ukraine are considered to have a life expectancy five to seven years lower than children surveyed from non-contaminated areas.
Children from the contaminated territories have higher anxiety levels, they are concerned about their health and the health of their family, and are more introverted than their peers in non-contaminated areas. Interestingly, however, children in the contaminated zones are also higher achievers than others, as success in school is a means of leaving these zones.
The minimum estimate for the number of people forced to leave their homes because of radiation dangers following the Chernobyl explosion is almost 400,000: 150,000 in Belarus, 150,000 in Ukraine, and 75,000 in the Russian Federation. These internally displaced persons have suffered the hardships typical of other refugees and internally displaced persons: they were forced to flee their homes and established community structures at very short notice, unaware of where they were going or how they would end up and having to endure temporary shelter and extremely poor living conditions.
Since everything in their homes had been contaminated by radiation they were forced to abandon their homes with only the clothes on their back. Upon reaching their final destination, they were required to remove and burn the one set of clothes they had been allowed to bring. And when the enemy is invisible, as is the case for radiation, fears become all the more difficult to counter and weigh all the more heavily on the minds of the people.
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) studies point to a marked increase in stress-related illnesses and social dysfunction as a result of Chernobyl. This lack of information or, in some cases, exposure to contradictory information, the uncertainty regarding present and future health effects and the implications for future generations and, in some cases, the stress of relocation have all had an effect on the psychological well being of the populations affected by Chernobyl.
In the case of Chernobyl, as in many other radiological incidents, psychological effects have predominated. The nature of these effects is complicated and it is wrong to dismiss them as irrational or to label them as “radiophobia”. Many factors contribute to the development of this widespread public response. Among other things, there may be the historical association with nuclear bombs, or a lack of openness in the past on the part of governments, or the absence of intelligible explanations by scientists.
Even physicians and others who might be looked to for guidance have often been confused. The result is that rumors multiply, fears increase, and any health problem is quickly attributed to a nuclear cause. Uncorroborated narratives may become commonly held wisdom and unverifiable statistical data may be accepted with insufficient scrutiny.
Answers from Ayurveda
Three years ago more Indian vaidyas started treating the victims of Chernobyl, 90 of them started pancha karma, rasayana as advised by the vaidyas and results looked promising. More holistic projects should be planned and executed, endeavoring to isolate, treat and reduce illnesses associated with the Chernobyl accident, whether caused directly by radiation or by the profound stress and the anxiety that has characterized life over the past 15 years in the affected countries.
This will involve proper Ayurvedic diagnosis done by experienced & learned vaidyas, the provision and maintenance of adequate pancha karma equipment, medicine and treatment facilities, and programs to address stress and its ramifications. Mass education to adopt the principles that have been proved to improve immunity, manage stress thereby restoring normalcy. Perfect health may sound unimaginable in the context of this nuclear catastrophe but this is the time for using ancient wisdom to achieve the incredible.
Ayurveda is the most ancient and scientific system of natural medicine. It advocates a wide variety of approaches that simultaneously influence mind, physiology, behavior, and environment to maintain optimal health and promote longevity. It deals not only with the social and psychological consequences of the catastrophe but all aspects stated above. Usually the scientific community accepts and adopts the well trodden path but now we need to research the literature of this ancient system of medicine to find better alternatives.
According to Ayurveda, diseases arise in the body when one acts against nature, or against the natural healthful balance of the body. This concept is called pragnapradha (adopting wrong practices knowing that they are harmful) Charaka-one of the most revered of the seers has given many thought provoking and adaptable answers in such situations and today the world is looking at this holistic medicine not just to manage some problems caused by this disaster but also in many other conditions.
Charak Samhita gives an elaborate description in a chapter titled “janpadodwamsa” (conditions leading to mass destruction of life) with regard to pollution of land, (desha) air (vayu), water (jala), vagrant changes in weather conditions (vikrutha kala), the reasons & remedies of the above have been dealt in detail from which we could adopt many beneficial techniques.
If the head of the state (king, politicians, people in power etc.) is power crazy, greedy, dishonest, immodest, lethargic, is a home for all vices (kama, krodha, loba, moha mada, matsarya) then he is ruined by them. His followers are also doomed and this results in wrong utilization of nature, which culminates in mass destruction. The treatise further describes the features of the polluted -air, water, weather and land.
Mass destruction of people, property, pollution, famine, earth quake, floods etc natural calamities, man made disasters all need to be tackled by adopting many measures like–pancha karma, rasayana, sadvrtha, achara rasayana, mani, mantra, yagna, japa, homa, etc. These principles, if adopted suitably as per each individual circumstance, as recommended by Ayurveda, there will be many benefits.
Some benefits include, youth, improved intelligence & creativity, simple living associated with high thinking, improved sensory perception, better performance of motor organs, improved luster-complexion, which promises popularity, brilliance & confidence, charming looks, vitality, name-fame, joy, improved immunity, faster recovery from physical-mental ailments, freedom from fear of death & diseases. Here an effort has been made to explain the above in brief.
Pancha Karma & Rasayana
Pancha karma means five types of therapies-it includes-3 phases–preparatory phase (the person is made suitable to under go pancha karma it includes deepana, pachana, shenaha, swedana), the pancha karma proper which has vamana, (emesis) virechan, (causes loose stools) two types of basti (different medications given through enema) and nasya, (medication through the nose) followed by post pancha karma phase – i.e., sansarjanakarma (recommended diet and habits are to be followed as per instructions).
After this it’s advisable to start rasayana according to each individual’s need. Rasayana includes chyavan prash, brahmi rasyana, ashwagandha rasayana, medhyarasayana, bhallataka rasyana etc Ayurvedic anti-oxidants like amla, haldi, ashwagandha, bacopa monnieri, yasti madhu, guduchi, etc., – in fact, most herbs (present in these rasayanas) are loaded with beneficial anti-oxidants which act as vigilant arsenal to protect our bodies from oxidative damage.
Ashwagandha, also known as Indian ginseng or winter cherry, is a powerful adaptogen, helping the body to cope with stress and maintain its natural equilibrium. Ashwagandha, like amla, is loaded with bioflavonoids. Turmeric or Curcuma longa, is another Ayurvedic anti-oxidant with strong anti-inflammatory and anti-infective properties. It can be easily incorporated into the daily diet by adding it as a spice to many foods. Ayurveda has lots to offer some explored some yet to be explored.
After pancha karma, following rules of swasth vritha (healthy circle) which includes-dinacharya (daily routine) rtucharya (seasonal routine) achara rasayana (principles of virtuous living) and rasayana (Ayurvedic tonics are different than other tonics -they are best if advised after examination by a vaidya) helps to balance the mental, physical and emotional aspects of being human, paving the way to perfect health.
Pancha karma aims at eliminating accumulated impurities in the physiology and restoring balance before any imbalance manifests as disease. And in case of diseases already manifested, helps detoxify. Impurities accumulate in the body from stress and strain, unhealthy diet and behavior, aging, environmental pollution and other factors. These impurities prevent proper functioning of the physiology; hinder proper digestion & metabolism and obstruct the channels of circulation and communication in the body.
Rasayana promotes vitality, long life, and the prevention of disease. This can be recommended in both healthy and sick and the benefits are multiple. Sushrut Samhita, another Ayurvedic classic work also gives a scientific explanation of congenital deformities, it’s causes and how best to prevent them. This work adds a lot to our present day understanding of many disorders, and we need to look at it with much more respect, that’s due.
For further understanding of these, it’s recommended that those really interested should read original Sanskrit texts – not translated – which can be more misleading. Initial scientific research done in many post graduate centers in India and abroad on pancha karma rasayana has shown improved cardiovascular functioning, improved appetite and digestion, increased vitality, increased stamina and improved mental clarity. And as assured above results have manifested in victims of Chernobyl, which has made Russia welcome Ayurveda officially into their country today.
Homa was used in the ancient Vedic system of knowledge, in spheres such as bio-energetics, psychotherapy, medicine, agriculture, including bio-genetics, climate technology and interplanetary communication. One form of Homa is Agnihotra (Agni = fire, hotra = healing) is a Vedic ritual, known as a scientific process of purification of the atmosphere with the cosmic element -fire. This creates pure nutritional and medicinal atmosphere that prevents growth of pathogenic bacteria.
The subtle vibrations emanating during the ritual fills the surrounding atmosphere with vibrations of love, peace and purity. Adopting the use of Agnihotra has helped yield better quality, quantity of farm products; it makes plants & animals happy, healthy, and disease resistant. It helps purify water reservoirs. Agnihotra is done at both sunrise and sunset. Dried cow dung, ghee (purified butter) and rice are burnt in a pyramid-shaped copper receptacle of a prescribed size, accompanied with the chanting of the mantra (a word-sound combination).
Cow dung contains a substance similar to penicillin, which has a disinfecting effect and reduces bacteria. Its property of reducing radioactive radiation is described in Vedic writings. Many families perform Agnihotra regularly in India, benefiting most during the Bhopal gas tragedy. After the Chernobyl catastrophe a group of scientists experimented in Yugoslavia with Agnihotra and discovered there was no longer any sign of radioactivity in the immediate vicinity, following the combustion of the required ingredients in the copper pyramid In the area bordering the Soviet Union people threatened by radioactive fallout sealed their huts with cow dung and was thus able to protect them from radiation.
It is also known that NASA space capsules are coated with a thin layer of cow dung to protect them against radiation. The Agnihotra smoke binds detrimental bits of radiation in the atmosphere and neutralizes their radioactive effect. In Agnihotra nothing is destroyed, only transformed. In a polluted environment the elements of the earth begin to change: the structure of the chemical elements and their connection to molecules are restructured.
These fine material changes during Agnihotra can be seen with the help of Kirlian photography. This list stated above is merely indicative and not exhaustive, the benefits of Agnihotra and other Homas are multi-dimensional. Ayurveda advocates many measures to tackle these disasters and treats the individual – not various organs. It looks at the body as a whole; mind, physiology, nutrition, senses, emotions, and also the environment. So the total picture is taken into consideration when somebody is sick, in order to set it right. Some of the important factors to be followed are outlined.
Diet- Food As Medicine
In the Ayurvedic tradition, food, herbs and spices are our sustenance and our pharmacy. What we eat plays an integral role in the balancing act that, according to Ayurveda, is the key to health. The basic diet is essentially made up of natural foods free of chemicals and pesticides ‘One man’s food is another man’ s poison ‘ & ‘ you are what you eat ‘ Ayurveda agrees with the above and diet is known to play a very crucial role not only in maintaining perfect health but also in restoring it.
Ayurveda recognizes that each individual ‘s needs are different based on many factors like, prakruti (different inborn nature-is different in each person), agni, (digestive capacity) bala, (energy, immunity, will power) satmya (dietary habits) desha (weather & customs of different places) vayah (age) kala (seasonal variations), etc. and accordingly they should consume food and medicine. Ayurveda believes in treating an individual not a disease, so treatment, diet, exercises, rasayana etc are different in different individuals suffering from same disease A diet high in fiber has been shown to exhibit protective actions against some types of cancer, as well as cardiovascular disease.
Excessive consumption of sugar and carbohydrates, as well as processed, preserved and devitalized foods, dramatically compromises the immune system, a critical player in maintaining health and guarding against diseases. Ayurveda advocates consuming dishes comprising all 6 tastes daily, and moderation in consuming sugar, salt etc to maintain health. Diet suitable to Chernobyl victims should be decided as per each individual as stated in Ayurvedic classical treatises.
Exercise done in moderation (not stress producing pace), as per season, individual requirement is good not only to stimulate circulation, but helps also to cope better with stress, (Stress can profoundly weaken the immune system;) A very elaborate description has been given in our shastra regarding exercises, it’s benefits, what should be done before andafter performing them. Undoubtedly exercises could be adopted for best results to achieve, preserve and, promote health.
Pranayama (breathing exercises) acts on all aspects, physical, mental, and spiritual levels of human beings can be very helpful if practiced regularly and sincerely. It is very useful when you feel threatened as it helps regain one’s calm. So the victims of Chernobyl would benefit immensely by this. [Yoga asanas (postures), pranayama and all aspects of yoga like the yama-niyama, dhyana, etc. are to become part of life, should be learnt from & done under the guidance of an experienced guru for best results.] Research has shown us time and again that regular proper practice of Yoga bestows peace, prosperity, perfect health, improved immunity and many more benefits most suitable to tackle the problems of Chernobyl.
Positive Influence on the Environment
Color, gem, mantra chikitsa, music, and aroma therapies that have positive influence on individuals and environment as a whole could also be adopted. Ayurveda recommends the following to create positive influence on the environment – mass prayers, hearing spiritual discourses, chanting bhajans, singing, listening to devotional and patriotic songs, following achara rasayana (rules for virtuous living).
Just as the term “Chernobyl” has become synonymous throughout the world with our fear of technological catastrophe, Ayurveda has come to be looked up as a panacea for many ailments. Chernobyl symbolizes a penance for our unchecked desire for progress and Ayurveda, a scientific life style formulated by selfless seers of yore has come to mean a blessing for modern ails. The humanitarian trauma, a tragedy of international magnitude caused by Chernobyl is as frighteningly unnatural and difficult to quantify.
It can only be addressed through a strong and consistent response. This is very natural, simple yet powerful to tackle all aspects of this disaster. Ayurveda strongly advocates perfect health for all (Sarve-jano sukino bhavantho-sarve santho niramaya) and if the principles of this shastra are truly adopted, the dream of achieving perfect health for all can become a reality soon. The then Secretary General of United Nations- Boutros Boutros-Ghali in a message to the international conference, on the 10th anniversary of Chernobyl -stated, “Even today, its health, social, economic, and environmental dimensions, both immediate and long term, remain to be defined.”
More than five years later, the above statement is still true. And it’s said that Ayurveda is an ocean of knowledge and today we need to explore it’s depth and bring back the promised ambrosia to eliminate all suffering, fear of death & diseases, to ensure lasting peace and prosperity.
This article is for educational purposes only. It is not intended to treat, diagnose, prescribe or heal any health condition. It is not intended to substitute for care from healthcare professionals.
?2001 Dr. T.R. Priyadarshini, BAMS, MA (Sanskrit); MS (Shalakya), teaches at theMysore Ayurvedic Medical College and is also involved with clinical & theoretical research. She has been practicing Ayurveda for the past 15 years and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org