Journalist suggests nuclear, or just toxic, vacations

“Pollution touring” doesn’t have a ring to it, but that doesn’t stop New York journalist Andrew Blackwell from recommending it in his new book, “Visit Sunny Chernobyl.”

“Every city or location has a place that is supposedly too polluted to enjoy,” says Blackwell, who reads at Book Passage in San Francisco on Thursday. “I think these spots are often the most interesting.”

Released by Rodale in May and subtitled “And Other Adventures in the World’s Most Polluted Places,” “Visit” isn’t a straightforward guidebook. It’s an environmental exposé, guide and travel memoir rolled into one.

Blackwell charts out seven destinations, including the Amazon, Canada’s oil sands mining sites, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and India’s most polluted city.

His toxic-themed globe trot began with his first visit to Kampur nearly 10 years ago, when it was reported as India’s most polluted city. At the time, he didn’t have an agenda to write a book, but the trip triggered further exploration.  

“I care about the environment, but I had little visceral sensory experience with key issues,”  Blackwell says. “You learn non-obvious things about pollution and the environment when you’re rubbing your nose in it. I wanted to see how far I could push that.”

He pushes it pretty far, visiting Chernobyl, the site of the catastrophic 1986 nuclear power accident that turned more than 100,000 square miles of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine into a ghost town.

Blackwell hired a tour guide, got a radiation detector and went into the disaster’s epicenter, the Exclusion Zone, with its towering nuclear reactor skeletons. He didn’t wear a hazmat suit, but he bought a track suit at a local market, in case he needed to dispose of his clothes. After the visit, he tested OK for radiation exposure, and took the track suit, and vivid memories, home.

“With Chernobyl there’s this ghost story idea of two-headed animals and so on,” Blackwell says. But, as he describes it in the book, it’s a “fascinating, post-apocalyptic sphere where flora and fauna are reclaiming the territory.” He adds, “There was something joyous about nature rushing in to an unpeopled world.”

Blackwell tried to find a place so disgusting or unnerving he couldn’t stand it. He failed.

“There’s a real disgust that attaches to these places, and I object to that,” Blackwell says. “There’s always something worthwhile about a place, even if it has a lot counting against it. Just don’t eat the wild mushrooms at Chernobyl.”


Andrew Blackwell

Where: Book Passage, 1 Ferry Building, The Embarcadero at Market Street, S.F.

When: 6 p.m. Thursday

Tickets: Free

Contact: (415) 835-1020,

Dire water warnings confront San Francisco and beyond

‘We will face challenges that I don’t think modern California has ever really seen before’

By Jessica Wolfrom
Debate over $150 million San Francisco school district windfall

‘We’re looking at the ways to boost morale’

By Ida Mojadad
Fired for being ‘unGoogley’ after asking about holiday pay?

South Carolina data center worker says she got sacked for questioning Thanksgiving reimbursement

By Jeff Elder