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Anthropologist proposes changes to radiation zone policies

Around the world, hundreds of thousands of people live near former nuclear test sites. Often, this leaves them exposed to radioactive waste, which can lead to leukemia and other cancers. Anthropologist and College of Arts and Sciences professor Magdalena Stawkowski is working to help keep people in these areas safer. 

What’s new: In a policy brief entitled “Forgotten Ground Zeros,” Stawkowski offers four solutions to prevent unnecessary radiation exposure at the Soviet-era Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site in Kazakhstan:

  • Establish local education programs to prevent unintentional exposure to residual radioactivity 
  • Encourage local authorities to promote radiation-safety programs 
  • Cordon off and secure unmarked radioactive areas on nuclear test sites 
  • Carry out regular radiation monitoring in villages close to nuclear test sites 

Who’s paying attention: The brief, published by the Danish Institute for International Studies, has gained attention from anthropology associations worldwide, even receiving an award from the Society for Medical Anthropology’s Anthropological Responses to Health Emergencies. The Policy Brief Professional Award "recognizes outstanding application of anthropological insights to policies around health emergencies.” 

Why it matters: Stawkowski’s work is already making an impact. Since the brief’s publication in 2020, efforts have begun to secure some of the more radioactive areas of the Semipalatinsk test site. But Stawkowski says there is still work to be done. 

“Health disparities in this population are stark, with increasing rates of cancer and fetal anomalies among children, compared with the rest of Kazakhstan. Other areas remain accessible to anyone who wishes to enter, posing an ongoing risk to public health and safety. This underscores the continued urgency of addressing the complex challenges posed by the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site.”

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