Scientists Happily Surprised to Find Truffles Free of Chernobyl Radiation

©. Simon Egli/WSL

Mushrooms and game meat in European regions where Chernobyl fallout was most intense still have excess radiation, but Burgundy truffles get the green light; foodies rejoice.

It’s been 30 years since the 1986 nuclear disaster in Ukraine in which a fire and explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant unleashed a slew of radioactive particles into the atmosphere. Swept along by winds and settled by heavy rains, radioactive particles, especially caesium-137 (137Cs), polluted large stretches of the European continent. And we all know the problem with radioactive things, they’ve got lasting power.

"Much of the continent's topsoil layers are still radioactively contaminated," says Ulf Büntgen, Head of the Dendroecology Group at the Swiss Federal Research Institute (WSL) and lead author of a new study measuring something dear to a foodie’s heart: the contamination level of Burgundy truffles (Tuber aestivum), like those pictured below.


© Simon Egli, WSL

In the same way that game meat like red deer and wild boar persist with contamination from 137Cs in areas where the fallout from Chernobyl was heaviest, many forest mushrooms are also contaminated. Since numerous types of fungi, like truffles, are prone to accumulating radioactive pollution, the group of Swiss and German researchers took to the forests and fields to determine the fate of the beloved Burgundy truffle. They found that they contain only negligible amounts of radioactive caesium, and are safe for consumption.

"We were very positively surprised that all specimens we analyzed exhibited insignificant values of 137Cs," says Büntgen.

Deer truffles, an unrelated but similar organism (and more readily consumed by deer or wild boar than human gourmands) are among the most contaminated fungi.

The researchers tested 82 Burgundy truffles that were sniffed out by specially-trained truffle pooches like Miro, pictured top with one of the treasures he found – talk about man's best friend. The truffles came from several areas in Switzerland, Germany, France, Italy and Hungary. All samples had negligible radioactivity, with 137Cs values ranging below the detection limit of 2 becquerels per kilogram, concludes the report. This is far below the tolerance value of 600 becquerels per kilogram.

"Sampling sites were defined by the success of various truffle dogs. We were trying to get as many fruit bodies as possible from as wide an area as possible," explains Büntgen. "The resulting pattern is by far not optimal but indeed good enough for a first assessment and interpretation."

The scientists are unsure of what results would be like had they expanded their search to areas with higher deposits of 137Cs, like Belarus or central Austria. "We really don't know," Büntgen says. "We will, however, continue to spatially expand our search to include truffles from regions that were so far not considered – the more the better."

Meanwhile back at the scene, this is happening: Wildlife is absolutely thriving at Chernobyl disaster site. Go figure.