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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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History
A Founder of Earth Day Looks Back on How It Began
Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Caruso Affiliated
Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Caruso Affiliated

On the very first Earth Day in 1970, Denis Hayes stood on a stage in Central Park, stunned by the number of people who'd come to honor the planet. Now in his 70s, Hayes remembers it was like looking at the ocean—“you couldn’t see where the sea of people ended.” Crowd estimates reached more than a million people.

For Hayes, who is now board chair of the international Earth Day Network, it was the culmination of a year’s worth of work. As an urban ecology graduate student at Harvard University, he’d volunteered to help organize a small initiative by Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson. Nelson was horrified by the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, and wanted to raise awareness about environmental issues by holding teaching events similar to those being held by civil rights and anti-war activists.

Senator Nelson saw a growing disconnect between the concept of progress and the idea of American well-being, Hayes tells Mental Floss. “There was a sense that America was prosperous and getting better, but at the same time, the air in the country was similar to the air today in China, Mexico City, or New Delhi," Hayes says. "Rivers were catching on fire. Lakes were unswimmable.”

Nelson's plan for these environmental teach-ins was for speakers to educate college students about environmental issues. But he had no one to organize them. So Hayes, Nelson’s sole volunteer, took control on a national level, organizing teach-ins at Harvard first and then across the U.S. Initially, the response was tepid at best. “Rather rapidly it became clear that this wasn’t a hot issue at colleges and universities in 1969,” Hayes says. “We had a war raging, and civil rights were getting very emotional after the Nixon election.”

Still, both Hayes and Nelson noticed an influx of mail to the senator's office from women with young families worried about the environment. So instead of focusing on colleges, the two decided to take a different tactic, creating events with community-based organizations across the country, Hayes says. They also decided that rather than a series of teach-ins, they'd hold a single, nationwide teach-in on the same day. They called it Earth Day, and set a date: April 22.

Hayes now had a team of young adults working for the cause, and he himself had dropped out of school to tackle it full time. Long before social media, the project began to spread virally. “It just resonated,” he says. Women and smaller environmental-advocacy groups really hooked onto the idea, and word spread by mouth and by information passing between members of the groups.

Courtesy of Denis Hayes

With the cooperation and participation of grassroots groups and volunteers across the country, and a few lawmakers who supported the initiative, Hayes’ efforts culminated in the event on April 22, 1970.

Hayes started the day in Washington, D.C., where he and the staff were based. There was a rally and protest on the National Mall, though by that point Hayes had flown to New York, where Mayor John Lindsay provided a stage in Central Park. Parts of Fifth Avenue were shut down for the events, which included Earth-oriented celebrations, protests, and speeches by celebrities. Some of those attending the event even attacked nearby cars for causing pollution. After the rally, Hayes flew to Chicago for a smaller event.

“We had a sense that it was going to be big, but when the day actually dawned, the crowds were so much bigger than anyone had experienced before,” Hayes said. The event drew grassroots activists working on a variety of issues—Agent Orange, lead paint in poor urban neighborhoods, saving the whales—and fostered a sense of unity among them.

“There were people worrying about these [environmental] issues before Earth Day, but they didn’t think they had anything in common with one another," Hayes says. "We took all those individual strands and wove them together into the fabric of modern environmentalism.”

Hayes and his team spent the summer getting tear-gassed at protests against the American invasion of Cambodia, which President Nixon authorized just six days after Earth Day. But by fall, the team refocused on environmental issues—and elections. They targeted a “dirty dozen” members of Congress up for re-election who had terrible environmental records, and campaigned for candidates who championed environmental causes to run against them. They defeated seven out of 12.

“It was a very poorly funded but high-energy campaign,” Hayes says. “That sent the message to Congress that it wasn’t just a bunch of people out frolicking in the sunshine planting daisies and picking up litter. This actually had political chops.”

The early '70s became a golden age for environmental issues; momentum from the Earth Day movement spawned the creation of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Environmental Education Act (which was initially passed in 1970 and revived in 1990), and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“We completely changed the framework within which America does business, more than any other period in history with the possible exception of the New Deal,” Hayes says. “But our little revolution was brought entirely from the grassroots up.”

In 1990, Hayes was at it again. He organized the first international Earth Day, with about 200 million participants across more than 140 countries. Since then it’s become a global phenomenon.

Despite its popularity, though, we still have a long way to go, even if the improvements Hayes fought for have made these issues feel more remote. Hayes noted that everything they were fighting in the '70s was something tangible—something you could see, taste, smell, or touch. Climate change can seem much less real—and harder to combat—to the average person who isn’t yet faced with its effects.

Hayes also notes that people have become more skeptical of science. “Historically, that has not been a problem in the United States. But today science is under attack.”

He warns, “This [anti-science sentiment] is something that could impoverish the next 50 generations and create really long-term devastation—that harms not only American health, but also American business, American labor, and American prospects.”

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Live Smarter
All National Parks Are Offering Free Admission on April 21
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Looking for something to do this weekend that's both outdoorsy and free? To kick off National Park Week, you can visit any one of the National Park Service's more than 400 parks on April 21, 2018 for free.

While the majority of the NPS's parks are free year-round, they'll be waiving admission fees to the more than 100 parks that normally require an entrance fee. Which means that you can pay a visit to the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Yosemite, or Yellowstone National Parks without reaching for your wallet. The timing couldn't be better, as many of the country's most popular parks will be increasing their entrance fees beginning in June.

The National Park Service, which celebrated its 100th birthday in 2016, maintains 417 designated NPS areas that span more than 84 million acres across every state, plus Washington, D.C., American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.

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