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The children affected by Chernobyl's radiation leak are easy to spot when they step off the plane for a "clean-air break" over the summer in Vancouver.

Raised in poverty on a diet of contaminated milk and of vegetables grown in contaminated soil, they appear pale, lean and frightened.

A week later, the children, ranging in age from eight to 12 are wide-eyed and playful.

Dressed in new clothing and with stylish Western haircuts, they jumped with excitement yesterday as they released butterflies, imported from Costa Rica, into the Vancouver Aquarium's Amazon gallery.

In the world's worst civil nuclear disaster, an accident at a power plant in Chernobyl on April 26, 1986, led to the release of 5 per cent of the radioactive core of a poorly designed reactor run by inadequately trained personnel.

Those exposed to high levels of radiation were killed.

However, the experts have not agreed on an official count of deaths attributable to the accident.

Estimates range from 40 to more than 4,000.

Thousands of people in Ukraine and Belarus who developed cancers have attributed their medical problems to the Chernobyl nuclear accident.

As many as 170,000 Ukrainians say they suffer sicknesses caused by Chernoybl radiation.

Neighbouring Belarus, affected by winds blowing north at the time of the accident, believes that leukemia rates in some villages affected by the radioactive cloud are 10 times the world norm, a Belarussian newspaper reported.

But at the Vancouver Aquarium, Emma Scherbich, 9, who lives in the Belarussian capital Minsk, appears oblivious to concerns about radiation levels and the effects of a nuclear accident.

She is more interested in the iridescent butterflies gracefully flapping about, the lazy sloth scratching itself while wrapped around a branch and birds darting about the gallery trying to catch a butterfly.

Speaking haltingly in English, she most often answers each question asked during a brief interview with a thoughtful "yes."

She likes being in Canada, although she misses her family, she said. She has seen butterflies but not as beautiful as those at the aquarium, she added.

She has quickly become part of her summer family.

She proudly showed off her arm that sports a sticker tattoo from a restaurant chain.

The children were brought to Vancouver by a charity called the Canadian Relief Fund for Chernobyl Victims.

It is an outgrowth of an organization that started in Ireland.

Traci Hildebrand, a mother of four and Emma's host for the summer, said families in the Vancouver region bring over youngsters from eight to 16, to allow the children health breaks.

Each child is treated as a member of the family.

New clothes are bought for them and they are taken to dentists.

At the end of summer, they go home with stacks of multivitamins and other medicines.

Bob Fiege, who has been host to Chernobyl children for a few summers, visited Belarus this year to see how the families live.

He said that the children who come to Vancouver live in small, brick homes with no plumbing and little food; most of their fruit and vegetables come from land still considered contaminated.

Despite their problems, the families told him they cannot leave the area because they cannot afford to move, Mr. Fiege said.

Emma, however, was preoccupied with the Aquarium exhibits, not nuclear accidents and cancer.

When she returns to Belarus, she will tell her family about the "nice" butterflies, she said.