Cold War nuclear weapons tests scattered radioactive material across the globe. That material can still be found in trace amounts in the sea, the soil, and — according to a new study — the flesh of wild boars roaming the forests of southern Germany.
Experts have long known that Europe’s wild boars have high levels of radioactivity, so high, in fact, that their meat is generally unsafe to eat. In some regions, hunters avoid the animals entirely, which has caused their numbers to surge. Scientists believed this was the result of the 1986 meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear plant, which sent radioactive material wafting over Europe. But the new research suggests that much of the radioactive material in wild boars predates the Chernobyl disaster.
For the study, scientists examined 48 samples of wild boar meat from across southern Germany, finding high levels of radioactive cesium in most of the samples. Comparing the levels of short-lived cesium-137 with longer-lived cesium-135, they were able to infer that the boars had been contaminated by the fallout from nuclear weapons tests carried out during the Cold War.
Overall, 88 percent of the samples surpassed the safe limit for radioactive cesium in food. And nuclear weapons tests accounted for as much as 68 percent of the contamination in boars. The findings were published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.
Over decades, radioactive cesium from nuclear tests has slowly migrated underground. As a result, most animals have been exposed to less cesium over time, but not wild boars. Because boars root around in the ground for food, such as buried deer truffles, they are continually excavating radioactive fallout, which explains why levels of radioactive cesium remain persistently high in boars, even as they drop in other animals.