The utility of focus group interviews to capture dietary consumption data in the distant past: Dairy consumption in Kazakhstan villages 50 years ago
From 1949 to 1962, residents of several villages in Kazakhstan received substantial doses of radiation to the thyroid gland resulting from nuclear tests conducted at the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site. The primary source of radiation was internal from an intake of radioactive iodine by consumption of contaminated dairy products. A previous research study of childhood exposure and thyroid disease in this region gathered limited data on study participants’ dairy intake at the time of the fallout for the purpose of estimating past radiation doses. As many participants were too young at the time of the nuclear tests to recall dietary consumption and existing sources of archival data are limited, it was necessary to interview parents and other village residents who cared for children during this time – older adults ranging in age from 75 to 90 years. Results from 11 focus group interviews conducted in 2007 with 82 women from 4 villages in Kazakhstan yielded group-level estimates of age-, gender-, ethnicity- and village-specific dairy consumption patterns in rural Kazakhstan during the 1950s. Children typically consumed cow’s milk with limited consumption of mare, goat and sheep milk; and consumed dairy products such as sour milk (airan), soft cottage cheese (tvorog) and fermented mare milk (koumiss) with the greatest amounts of koumiss reported at ages 15–21 years. The consumption patterns differed by age, and between Kazakh and Russian children, which should lead to different estimates of radiation exposure to the thyroid. This study showed the utility of focus groups to obtain quantitative estimates for dietary intake in the distant past.