Why you should care
Because there are better ways to fly.
Some people dream about going to Paris. Me? I wanted to visit Chernobyl, site of the worst nuclear accident in human history.
Since 2010, nearly 25 years after the 1986 nuclear reactor explosion that, according to a Green Cross report, has exposed at least 10 million people to nuclear radiation, outsiders have been allowed to visit the police- and military-controlled Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. I was a bit late to the party, by seven years, but I got a souvenir that rivals any magnet or T-shirt.
I booked my flight to Ukraine from Poland with four days’ notice, as well as a spot on a one-day Chernobyl tour — it’s against the law to go by yourself. I didn’t tell anyone my plan to visit where more than 30,000 people were evacuated within three and a half hours, days after the reactor exploded. Fun fact: The bus-organized evacuation went so smoothly because the Soviet Union used the plan it had in place for nuclear war.
“How many of you told family or friends where you are going today?”
That was one of the first questions the tour guide asked as our bus of 14 inquisitive souls set off. Only a few admitted to sharing their itinerary. That’s likely because many believe Chernobyl is still dangerous. And it can be, if you’re dumb enough to venture out of the safe zones. Otherwise, you’re exposed to less radiation while there than on the plane ride to Ukraine.
This mosquito was born in a radioactive zone, enjoying the unsafe water, feeding off animals who fed off the land.…
The tour is very concerned with guest safety, providing guidelines before and during the excursion. Wear a long-sleeved shirt, pants and closed shoes, stay with the guide, don’t wander into any buildings, don’t touch or brush up against anything, don’t sit on the ground, no pocketing of souvenirs and avoid stepping on moss — it sucks up radiation, which makes it the best place to hold your Geiger counter to see the radiation level spike. Also, don’t eat local fruit or vegetables, and no hunting or fishing. Lunch is served inside the workers’ canteen, where all food and drink are brought in from outside the zone.
There is something the tour guidelines don’t cover, though: what to do if you’re bitten by a (radioactive) mosquito. And that’s exactly what happened to me in the once-bustling city of Pripyat, now a crumbling ghost town within a beautiful forest.
I felt the little bugger on my hand, pricking my flesh. Given my years of experience in mosquito-heavy locales, I knew what to do: Squash it, quickly. After which, I stared, for several seconds, maybe even minutes, at the tiny carcass on my hand surrounded by blood. My blood!
I could have flicked it off my hand and rubbed the blood on my jeans. I didn’t, because the reality of the situation had set in: This mosquito was born in a radioactive zone, enjoying the unsafe water, feeding off animals who fed off the land and ran free, without a care in the world as to what level of radiation existed.
Perhaps I should have read the pre-tour recommendations more closely — they advised bringing repellent.
I made the only rational choice available and went for the used tissue in my pocket, scooped the mosquito up and then tucked the tissue away again. If I ended up in a hospital with an unexplainable illness, I wanted to have the culprit with me for examination.
I eventually confided to a tour friend what had happened. “You’re kidding,” he said, followed by, “Oh, that can’t be good.”
Word spread to the other tour members, resulting in predictions of my doomed future.
I silenced them all with one statement: “I can’t wait to see what superpower I acquire.” I mean, I might become Vampsquito, a bloodsucking flying huntress.
Discussions about my future superpowers didn’t sit well with a woman from Great Britain. She became quite upset, borderline jealous, and kept repeating how she should have licked a tree. And this after she had spent the entire day using hand sanitizer. I offered to let her touch the dead mosquito. She declined.
My health concerns hadn’t dissipated by the time I got back to the hotel. I Googled “radioactive mosquito bite.” The results were worthless. And so I kept my mosquito-filled tissue with me for the next month, through four more countries, by air and bus, just to be safe.
However, Tim Mousseau, a professor of biological sciences at the University of South Carolina whose counsel I sought, has been bitten by hundreds of mosquitoes during his 18 years of fieldwork at Chernobyl and hasn’t caught a nasty disease.
“The amount of radionuclides that could be transferred via a mosquito bite would be extremely small, if any,” Mousseau says. Had I eaten a local mushroom or wild meat, then there’d be cause for concern — they can have quite high levels of radioactive cesium. But the mosquito? Nah.
I can’t remember when I finally threw the mosquito tissue away. In fact, it may still be buried in my bag. I’m in good health, but even if I weren’t and I had become Vampsquito? I’d never tell. But now I may have to go back to Chernobyl and lick a tree. Just to see what happens.