Bad Bugs

Cornelia Hesse-Honegger's hyperrealistic renderings of marine life and cute ladybugs made her known through upmarket art magazines. Her watercolors were shown in Europe and New York.

Now, her work disturbs. Hesse-Honegger, 49, paints insects that she believes have been deformed by radioactivity. As an illustrator at Zurich University's Zoological Institute, she grew increasingly concerned about the mutations she observed in routine genetic studies in the lab. Then, in April 1986, came Chernobyl.

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"I worried about the effect on insects," says Hesse-Honegger. "The scientists pooh-poohed any danger. I decided to see for myself." Near Chernobyl's restricted zone, and in high-fallout areas in Sweden and Switzerland, she found bugs with deformities on their bodies, wings, feelers, limbs, and eyes.

She has since gathered misshapen insects from around England's Sellafield nuclear plant and Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. "Normally," says Hesse-Honegger, "about 1 percent [of insects] may be born damaged." But at Three Mile Island, for instance, she found that the number was as high as 15 percent to 20 percent.

Scientists, meanwhile, remain skeptical--with some exceptions. Says Joan Davis, a water protection specialist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, "Maybe low-level radiation is playing havoc with life. Numbers alone don't seem to move us, [but] pictures leave behind a loud and clear signal that something is desperately wrong."

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