Expert Commentary

Chernobyl 20 years after: Health consequences

2006 study published in Environmental Health Perspectives on the response to and impacts of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

On April 26, 1986, an explosion in reactor four at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the former Ukrainian SSR caused what was then the worst nuclear power-related accident in history. On March 11, 2011, a massive earthquake and tsunami seriously damaged the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in Okumu, Japan. In both cases, radiation escaped into the environment, prompting widespread public health concerns.

A 2006 study published in Environmental Health Perspectives, “The Chernobyl Accident 20 Years On: An Assessment of the Health Consequences and the International Response,” provides historical perspective and draws lessons from the Soviet nuclear accident that had major health consequences for Ukraine and neighboring Belarus.

The study’s findings include:

  • The most prominent health issue resulting from Chernobyl is thyroid cancer for people exposed to radiation as children; in Belarus, such reports were initially greeted with skepticism by scientists, but the link has been established.
  • Adverse psychological consequences have been firmly established in the Ukraine and Belarus, including negative stress outcomes and addiction.
  • Less certain, but worthy of increased attention, are possible genetic effects of radiation, which have been established; the precise health effects are still under study.
  • Also less clear is the level of increased risk for leukemia and birth defects, although increases here have been observed.
  • In 1986, the USSR felt confident to handle the fallout from Chernobyl and did not seek assistance from the WHO and IAEA for three years following the event. This belief that Chernobyl was an internal matter hampered response efforts by the international community and now limits exact data on health effects as correlated with precise radiation exposure levels.

Compared to 1986, the world is now highly interconnected, from capital markets to manufacturing to labor, and such events have even greater global impact. Future international-scale accidents, the researchers write, “should involve independent scientists and ensure cooperation rather than rivalry.”

Tags: cancer, nuclear power, safety, disasters

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