Why Does This YouTube Star Eat the Apples in Chernobyl?

In 2012, a radioactivity-obsessed YouTuber who goes by the moniker Bionerd23 posted a video from the depths of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the evacuated area most at risk from contamination after the fallout of the 1986 nuclear power plant accident. In her video, Bionerd23 measures the radiation levels of a kindergarten in what was once the village of Kopachi, filming herself wandering around with a Geiger counter.

In the years since her first Chernobyl video aired, Bionerd23 has become a minor YouTube sensation. Thousands of people watch her do little more than wander around radioactive sites taking measurements. In 2014, she appeared in an episode of Discovery Channel’s YouTube-focused show Outrageous Acts of Science (called You Have Been Warned in some parts of the world). Her most-viewed video from Chernobyl garnered more than 442,000 views: In it, she tosses bread from somewhere off-camera to a large catfish in a Chernobyl cooling pond, explaining that the fish are large because they have no predators and plenty of food from curious tourists, not because they’re mutated from radiation.

After an Atlas Obscura interview in April of this year described her videos as “strange” and “dangerous,” mental_floss got in contact with the vlogger to find out more about the story behind her unusual travel/science series—and to figure out just how dangerous “stunts” like eating apples from the Exclusion Zone really are. 

Bionerd23, who steadfastly maintains her anonymity and avoids mentioning her age or exact location, is a physics student at a university in Germany. She became obsessed with nuclear physics before she even got to college, driven by her natural skepticism. “I was highly suspicious at school—whether it was physics or religion, I’d be like ‘prove it or I don't believe you’ towards my teachers,” she tells mental_floss in an email. With equipment like homemade Geiger counters, “you can PROVE the existence of the atom as nuclear physics describes it—in your own home.”

Her first videos include footage of her playing with mercury, even holding it in her hand, and traveling to the German state of Saxony to measure the radioactivity of abandoned uranium mines. Her first visit to Chernobyl was part of a small Dutch television project that involved comparing the radiation levels in Brazil and in the Exclusion Zone. She put some of her personal footage from the trip on YouTube, beginning her role as an online chronicler of Chernobyl adventures. 

“I try to post the videos that would get ME excited about physics if I was a teenager, or an adult working in a different field,” she says. Most of the footage she films herself, or she’ll hand the camera over to someone she’s traveling with, including tourists and scientists. She’s currently collaborating with American videographer Lucas Brunelle, who’s best known for cycling films and stunts. 

On a typical trip, Bionerd23 will stay in Chernobyl around a week, exploring areas like a former radio factory, a hospital, and the power plant itself. She’s found odd things such as a flask of human prostate cancer cells, and encountered horses, moose, and even wolves in the evacuated region, which has become something of a nature preserve since most of the humans left 30 years ago. She describes the Exclusion Zone as “a time capsule full of infinite wonders.” 

Where Bionerd23's videos diverge from those of typical urban explorers is that she finds science lessons in the ruins. “People don't understand the exponential function” of radiation risk, she explains. “They don't understand how the radiation levels 30 years ago were deadly, killing people directly exposed in the vicinity of the reactor—and how they can be rather harmless levels nowadays.” Her videos also compare the radiation levels of different parts of Chernobyl with a broader context. When she measures the radiation of Exclusion Zone apples, for instance, she also measures the higher radiation levels of German-foraged mushrooms. 

Eating apples off a tree near the Chernobyl plant may seem more dangerous than it is, according to Ron Chesser, a professor of biological sciences who studies radiation dispersion and nuclear accidents at Texas Tech University. “The typical day-long excursion through the Chernobyl Zone will convey about half of a chest x-ray even if you eat a bushel of apples along the way,” he tells mental_floss in an email. 

However, years of living in the Zone and eating things that live there can pose a real risk, he continues. “Some dietary products (mushrooms, boar, some fishes) may have much higher radioactivity levels than apples,” he explains. “Obviously, a steady diet of zone products and constant presence in some portions of the zone could incur some real risks to inhabitants after years of living in contaminated areas.” 

Though the Exclusion Zone has been officially evacuated for 29 years, there are still a few people eking out a life there, however dangerous long-term radiation exposure may be. More than a hundred people, mostly elderly women, have returned to the zone to live in the now-contaminated communities surrounding the plant. (A recent film, Babushkas of Chernobyl, tells their story.)

As for Bionerd23, she says she just wants to show what the Exclusion Zone is really like today, beyond the outdated mythology that surrounds it. When she’s there, she says, “every step is exciting.” 

Banner image screenshot via YouTube

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Air Quality in American National Parks and Big Cities Is Roughly the Same
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National parks usually have more vegetation, wildlife, and open spaces than urban areas, but the two don't look much different when it comes to air quality. As City Lab reports, a new study published in Science Advances found that U.S. national parks and the nation's largest cities have comparable ozone levels.

For their research, scientists from Iowa State University and Cornell University looked at air pollution data collected over 24 years from 33 national parks and the 20 most populous metro areas in the U.S. Their results show that average ozone concentrations were "statistically indistinguishable" between the two groups from 1990 to 2014.

On their own, the statistics look grim for America's protected areas, but they're actually a sign that environmental protection measures are working. Prior to the 1990s, major cities had higher ozone concentrations than national parks. At the start of the decade, the federal government passed the Clean Air Act (CAA) Amendments in an effort to fight urban air pollution, and ozone levels have been declining ever since.

The average ozone in national parks did increase in the 1990s, but then in 1999 the EPA enacted the Regional Haze Rule, which specifically aims to improve air quality and visibility in national parks. Ozone levels in national parks are now back to the levels they were at in 1990.

Ground-level ozone doesn't just make America's national parks harder to see: It can also damage plants and make it difficult for human visitors to breathe. Vehicles, especially gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs, are some of the biggest producers of the pollutant.

[h/t City Lab]

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India's Supreme Court Demands That the Taj Mahal Be Restored or Demolished
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The Taj Mahal is one of the most recognizable monuments on Earth, but over the years it's started to look less like its old self. Smog and insect droppings are staining the once pure-white marble exterior an unseemly shade of yellow. Now, The Art Newspaper reports that India's Supreme Court has set an ultimatum: It's threatening to shut down or demolish the building if it's not restored to its former glory.

Agra, the town where the Taj Mahal is located, has a notorious pollution problem. Automobile traffic, factory smoke, and the open burning of municipal waste have all contributed to the landmark's increasing discoloration. Insects and acid rain also pose a threat to the facade, which is already crumbling away in some parts.

India's highest court now says the country's central government must seek foreign assistance to restore the UNESCO World Heritage Site if it's to remain open. Agra's state of Uttar Pradesh has taken some steps to reduce pollution in recent years, such us banning the burning of cow dung, which produces heavy brown carbon. In 2015, India's Supreme Court ordered all wood-burning crematoriums near the Taj Mahal to be swapped for electric ones.

But the measures haven't done enough to preserve the building. A committee led by the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpu reportedly plans to investigate the exact sources of pollution in the area, a process that will take about four months. The Supreme Court plans check in on the status of site every day from July 31.

Air pollution isn't the only factor damaging the Taj Mahal. It was constructed near the Yamuna River in the 17th century, and as the water gradual dries up, the ground beneath the structure is shifting. If the trend continues it could lead to the building's total collapse.

[h/t The Art Newspaper]

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