Chernobyl Disaster's Health Impact Remains Cloudy

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
April 26, 2004
At 1:24 a.m. on April 26, 1986, reactor number four of the nuclear power plant in the Ukrainian town of Chernobyl exploded as engineers conducted a test to determine how long the plant's generators could run without power.

It was the greatest technological disaster in history. Burning for ten days, the reactor released a cloud of radioactivity that some experts estimate was equivalent to that of 200 Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs.

The accident killed at least 30 plant workers, caused the hospitalization of hundreds of others, and exposed millions of people to ionizing radiation. This type of high-energy radiation can break apart molecules and atoms.

But 18 years after the disaster, the true health costs of Chernobyl's radiation bomb are still unknown.

Up to 2,000 children later developed thyroid cancer as a result of radiation. While some experts believe the cancer rate has peaked, others warn that it could take decades for all cancers to be detected.

Thousands of other fatal illnesses have also been blamed on the disaster. Less controversially, it is widely accepted that the accident has caused great economic and psychological hardship, especially among the hundred thousand people who had to be resettled.

"Eighteen years after the Chernobyl disaster, we are still unable to give an exhaustive picture of the consequences of this accident and its health implications," said Denise Adler, a radiation expert at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. "It can't be compared to any other environmental disaster."

Contaminated Rains

Chernobyl is located about 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, and 7 miles (11 kilometers) south of the border with Belarus. At the time of the accident, Ukraine and Belarus were still part of the Soviet Union.

Belarus was affected the most by the Chernobyl catastrophe. About 70 percent of all released radioactive substances from Chernobyl fell on its territory.

Some places in western Europe and Turkey received contaminated rains, and insignificant amounts of radiation even reached the United States. In Switzerland, it is still forbidden to eat mushrooms in some mountainous parts.

The secretive Soviet government at first downplayed the magnitude of the disaster. Few residents were told to evacuate the area, even though a large swath of territory soon became heavily contaminated by radionuclides—atoms that emit ionizing radiation.

"The actual radiation suffered by the populations is little known," said André Giordan, the director of the Didactic Science and Epistemology Laboratory at the University of Geneva. "It is therefore very difficult to quantify the health effects of the Chernobyl accident."

Poor recordkeeping and corruption also prevented the accurate registration of the 600,000 so-called liquidators—the workers who helped put out the fire and entomb the smoldering nuclear plant in the spring of 1986. Significant international efforts by the United Nations and others have been underway to better understand public and worker exposure, and the possible effects on their health.

Chronic Radiation

A report published in the journal Nuclear Energy last year predicted that 4,400 people would develop thyroid cancer as a result of the Chernobyl accident, leading to 1,000 premature deaths. Most cases can be cured by surgically removing the thyroid and treating patients with tablets of thyroxin hormone for the rest of their lives.

So far, only three people have died from Chernobyl-induced thyroid cancer, according to Ted Lazo, the deputy head of radiation protection at the Nuclear Energy Agency in Paris. There is no evidence yet of an increase in other cancers, such as leukemia.

"This is not to say that the populations still living in contaminated territories are healthy," Lazo said. "It seems pretty clear that, in general, the health of these people has deteriorated and continues to do so."

In Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it took, in some cases, 20 to 30 years to detect certain cancers.

But studies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki victims may not be applicable to predicting the effects of Chernobyl. While the victims of those atomic bombs were exposed to radiation in a blinding flash, the people of Chernobyl have lived with chronic exposure—albeit at a lower dose rate—for years. The danger of such radiation is difficult to assess and is the topic of ongoing research.

There are many noncancer health concerns, too.

In a major study of children born in 1994 to mothers who had lived 186 miles (300 kilometers) from Chernobyl and had been exposed to radioactive fallout, researchers found never before observed "germ line" mutations: changes in the DNA of sperm and eggs.

"Genetic defects may remain hidden for several generations," Adler said. "We have to expect more [of them] in the future."

Fear of the effects of radiation had a significant effect. Around 200,000 women reportedly aborted fetuses after being exposed to radioactive fallout, fearing that the children would have birth defects. So far, no such birth defects have been observed.

Life Returning

There is evidence that the Chernobyl disaster has led to increases in cardiovascular and gastrointestinal diseases, diabetes, and disorders of bone and connective tissue. Some of these diseases may be linked to stress.

"A number of stresses are most likely contributing to the current degradation [of] public health," Lazo said. "Exposure to radiation and other toxic substances is a fact and probably is part of this biological and complex problem. But these are certainly not the only major contributors to public health decline. The people living in these territories feel that they and their children are, in some sense, doomed."

Radiation doses in the area are still a dozen times higher than normal. Unable to make ends meet elsewhere, several hundred former residents have returned to Chernobyl, which once had a population of 120,000. Thousands more are shuttled into the so-called exclusion zone to work on the gradual powering down of the plant.

Reactor 4 has been sealed. However, some experts have warned that nuclear fuel trapped in its remains could cause the structure to deteriorate, and radiation to be released once again.

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