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The Russian military town of Sopka, in the Arkhangelsk region

‘There's no danger. Get to work.’ Following a radioactive incident outside Arkhangelsk, Russia's military didn't warn medical staff about their contaminated patients

Source: Meduza
The Russian military town of Sopka, in the Arkhangelsk region
The Russian military town of Sopka, in the Arkhangelsk region
Sergey Yakovlev / Lori Photobank

On August 8, at a launch site in Russia’s Arkhangelsk region, a rocket engine exploded. Two days later, state officials acknowledged that the accident resulted in a radiation leak. The victims in the explosion were taken to a hospital in Arkhangelsk, where the radioactive nuclide cesium-137 was later detected in the body of one of the doctors. Sources have confirmed to Meduza that none of the responding rescue workers or physicians were warned that they were treating irradiated patients. Hospital staff were informed about the risk of radiation only several hours after doctors started operating on the victims, and decontamination efforts didn’t begin until the next day. Most of the health workers involved in this incident have been sworn to state secrecy, but Meduza managed to speak to an employee at a rescue service whose staff administered first aid to the victims before they were hospitalized, and we reached a doctor at one of the hospitals where some victims were treated. In the text below, Meduza has changed both individuals’ names to protect their identity.

“They flew into a hotbed of isotope radiation without respirators or protective gear”

Arina Sergeyeva (not her real name), staff at the state-funded I. A. Polivany Rescue Service

The first thing you need to understand is that radiation, chemical, and biological defense troops’ regulations state that military personnel should respond to accidents at military facilities. 

When conducting any work like this [with the missile], the soldiers should have deployed decontamination checkpoints at the testing site — there should have been at least three. The first decontamination point should be at the border between the clean and contaminated zones. Even in the absence of a major accident, individuals leaving the danger zone must pass through this checkpoint with any equipment they touched, and they have to be processed and decontaminated of any radiation. At the next checkpoint, these people have to remove all their clothing (which needs to be destroyed), before they’re cleaned and decontaminated again. After this, they’re checked again for radiation levels. People who come up “clean” are released, but anyone with abnormal readings has to be taken to a military hospital. Before they’re loaded into an ambulance, they need to be washed again and then yet again, when they arrive at the hospital. Before any surgeries, patients should be decontaminated once again at the hospital. Only after all this should doctors treat the patients.

And what happened with the accident at the test site in the Arkhangelsk region? I wasn’t on duty that day, but I know about what took place from my colleagues. Six victims were taken to Vaskovo Airport, not on military helicopters, but on two civilian helicopters operated by air-medical service. These workers weren’t warned that they were carrying radiation-contaminated patients, and they certainly didn’t sign any consent-to-assist documents. Because they weren’t told whom they were transporting, the air-medical responders didn’t even take basic safety measures. They flew into a hotbed of isotope radiation without respirators or protective gear, and took away the victims.

Because this was an accident at a military compound, they should have called in feds from the Emergency Management Agency to help the victims, but instead they called staff from the local Arkhangelsk I. A. Polivany Rescue Service. 

And the most absurd thing in all this (though I struggle to single out what I think is “the most”) is that they didn’t leave our vehicle (a mobile radiation-chemistry laboratory) at Vaskovo Airport, where they brought the victims. Instead, they sent it to Severodvinsk to measure its radiation levels. At that time, there were reports that sensors there were showing heightened radiation levels. So our car went there, and an additional team drove to the airport with a gamma-ray sensor and nothing else. This was on orders from senior officials (not the managers at our rescue service).

Just so you understand: I’m saying that the rescue workers were in protective gear, but they had absolutely nothing to help the radiation victims. To make matters worse, our vehicle, which had everything needed to decontaminate radioactive people, had just left for Severodvinsk, on orders from management. I’ll note separately that the “Zvezdochka” and “Sevmash” factories in Severodvinsk also have their own equipment that could have been used to measure the radiation levels there.

If no one had concealed the presence of radiation or made ridiculous, rushed decisions, and if our mobile radiation-chemistry laboratory had been brought straight to Vaskovo Airport, we would have set up a checkpoint and decontaminated the victims. In our vehicle, we had a special inflatable enclosure, in which we’d have washed the victims with a decontaminating powder, and then we’d have sealed the water and their clothing inside a cylinder, and it would have been disposed of as radioactive waste. 

But as it was we didn’t even have decontaminating powder with us, which is why our team just washed the victims with water, when the helicopters landed. Then the paramedics showed up. Nobody had notified the ambulance doctors, either, that they would be in contact with people exposed to radiation. They came wearing the usual lab coats, without respirator masks. They, too, had no decontaminating powder.

The emergency responders told the doctors that contact with these patients was dangerous, that they needed to be decontaminated first, and for that they’d need to wait for orders to send a car with a decontaminator. The ambulance doctors answered, “Well, we can’t just wait around. We have to provide medical assistance to these people. Just look at them: they’re dying.” And they loaded the victims into their car and took them to city hospitals — namely, the Semashko hospital, where there’s an isotope laboratory (which offers radiation decontamination treatment), and the city’s regional hospital, where there is no such laboratory. 

Sergey Bobylev / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

“They lied to us that nobody knew there was radioactive contamination”

Pavel Kovalev (not his real name), a physician at Arkhangelsk’s regional hospital

On August 8, at 4:35 p.m., three people injured at a military testing site were brought to our hospital. We doctors directly asked if any of the patients had been exposed to radiation. The patients’ escorts told us that they’d all been decontaminated. They said, “They’re no danger to you. Get to work.”

The patients’ condition was critical, and the hospital called in everyone on standby, as well as some additional traumatologists, surgeons, and neurosurgeons, so we could do everything in our power. Some of the patients had spinal and hip fractures.

Some time later, when we were already in surgery with the patients, the dosimetrists showed up and started measuring beta-radiation levels. They ran out of the operating room in terror. Doctors caught them in the hallway, and they confessed that the beta radiation was off the scale. 

They had detectors and dosimeters at the Semashko hospital, where they brought another three victims. The doctors realized there was radiation, even though they were also told initially that there wasn’t any. They decontaminated the patients themselves, wearing protective suits, respirators, and started treatment, only after they made sure everything was safe. That’s how it’s supposed to be. We’d have done the same thing, if we’d been warned.

The next day — when the hospital was already, how shall we say, soiled in cesium-13 — soldiers started decontamination work in the operating rooms and emergency room, mowing the grass all around the hospital, and dismantling and confiscating anything they couldn’t disinfect (including the bath in the emergency room where we washed the victims). 

And another important thing: we risked the lives of the other patients who were in the emergency room at that time. We closed the area only after we realized that we’d admitted three patients who’d been exposed to radiation. The whole time up until this, literally steps from our victims, there were teenagers, pregnant women, and people who needed medical attention, all just walking by.

The next day, on Monday, staff from the Health Ministry arrived. After spending several hours with the patients (about whom the doctors themselves knew only that they’d been exposed to radiation, and not the type of radiation or doses), the physicians started asking the Health Ministry officials: “We’ve likely been irradiated. Who’s responsible for this? Whose decision was it? And how will we be compensated for this?” The acting minister said the doctors would get overtime pay, which is roughly 100 rubles ($1.50) an hour. In other words, the Health Ministry officials didn’t deny that the staff had been irradiated. So these people spent five to six hours with the infected, performed operations on them, and got 500 rubles ($7.60) for it.

For the next hour at the hospital, there was yelling and swearing. My colleagues shouted that they’d been treated like they were expendable. We were then ordered to calm down. They lied to us that nobody in the region knew about the radiation until 5:30 p.m. Oh really! All the sensors worked, and the Mayor’s Office released a statement that same day on its website about the release of radiation. True, the message was quickly deleted. The Health Ministry thought we didn’t have that information, but we’d gone back and combed over everything on the Internet and learned about the accident, and about the victims they’d brought us and where they'd come from.

The medics from the military came to our hospital only later. When we started telling them about the victims’ exposure, their diagnoses, and invited them into the patients’ rooms, the medics said, “No. We have children,” and “I’ve got so many kids and I’m not going in there.” Well that’s just great. Meanwhile, without any warning, the doctors at our hospital spent a bunch of time with these patients, the anesthesiologists each spent six hours with them, and these military medics don’t want to go inside for a single minute.

“You must have eaten some Fukushima crabs!”

After dismantling the bath in our hospital and mowing the lawn all around the building, they finally turned their attention to examining the doctors who treated the victims. Twenty-one of 57 hospital staff were examined at the A. I. Burnazyan Federal Medical Biophysical Center, and the remaining 36 people were screened there and then, at our hospital. As soon as they found cesium at Burnazyan in the first doctor, the entrance to this medical center was closed to us. Apparently 10 specialists from Burnazyan came to the Semashko hospital to examine us, but the scope of these examinations for the doctors here was far less than what our colleagues got at the Burnazyan medical center. 

At Burnazyan, they found cesium in one of my colleagues. He’s a young man, and his wife is currently pregnant. At the medical center, they asked him where he’s gone on vacation in the past few years. He started listing all the places, and said he’d been to Thailand at some point. When they heard this, they said where there’s Thailand, there’s Japan: “You must have eaten some Fukushima crabs!” The man had been in contact with cesium for several hours, he’d participated in surgeries [with irradiated patients], and he’d stood over the patients without a respirator mask. Then he goes in for an examination, and they tell him: “Oops, well, it’s your own fault. You brought it home from Thailand.”

After the cesium-137 was discovered in my colleague, we were informed that all medical documentation on us (all the results of our exams) would be sent to the Health Ministry. It’s unclear what they’ll do there with these documents, if we’ll be provided copies later, and whether we’ll get them in full. 

“We don’t need your secrets”

Also, despite the fact that no one gave us an agreement to sign stating that we consented to work with irradiated patients (when the victims were brought to us, even the soldiers didn’t know what kind of radiation we were dealing with) — despite all this, almost every doctor and nurse working that day was sworn to military secrecy. They confiscated all the patients’ electronic and paper medical records, and took all the documentation on these individuals, leaving us without any evidence. They told us: “Just forget about this day.” But our people aren’t keepers of state secrets. A nurse doesn’t know the boundaries of these secrets. They brought these people to our hospital. Is that a secret? No. The nurses scrubbed them in our bath. Is that a secret? It is not. 

In the days afterwards, half the staff said immediately that they would quit. After all, exposure to cesium-137 increases the risks of developing cancer and a whole host of genetic mutations. And what good is the one examination they just performed on the doctors? Even if the disease doesn’t manifest instantly, that doesn’t mean you can rest easy. Anyone who was in contact with the contaminated now needs constant checkups. 

The actual number of exposed people is much higher than six (five of these individuals have already died). They’re being honored with the title of “heroes.” But the civilians who were irradiated at the same time (I mean the civil contractors who were also at the center of the testing site, and the doctors at our hospital and the ambulance doctors, and the air-medical responders) will never enjoy such recognition. In three or four years, when they start getting sick and start dying, it won’t prove anything. The documentation about the existence of victims on civilian grounds will be destroyed — it’s already been removed from our hospital — and the examination records will show that the doctors were all in good health. The civilians who were at the test site will also remain in the shadows. None of them went to the hospital, after all. End of story.

Right now, everybody’s trying to calm down. Some of those who treated the patients have already gone on vacation, while others are simply realizing that they’ll never prove anything. At first, everyone wanted to go to court, but the military seized all our documentation about the fact that we’d ever admitted patients with radiation. A judge would ask for the hospital’s information, but everything has been erased. The hospital administrator would respond with a polite letter stating that he found no data about the location of such and such patients contaminated with radiation. And if we filed a Criminal Code 237 lawsuit, all we’ve got in terms of evidence is the cesium-137 found in the one doctor. We still haven’t been given the results of our other examinations.

Our doctor who got the cesium-137 — he simply inhaled it. If they’d warned him, he would have worked just as responsibly, but he’d have worn a respirator. He wouldn’t have breathed in the cesium, he’d have thrown out his clothes, and washed the particles from his skin. They wouldn’t have even needed to disclose to us their [state] secrets about radioactive contamination. But when working with cholera, for example, you’d have immediately told the doctors, like any normal person, “Gentlemen, respirators and protective gear on, everybody.” And that’s it. We don’t need your secrets. We just want not to be contaminated and not to die, at least when it can be avoided easily. Not a word was ever said about this.

Recorded by Irina Kravtsova

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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