"Think again, think seven times again before you leap and start construction of new nuclear power plants. With my experience of Chernobyl I know what is involved. The explosion of one reactor required a superpower country to spend tens of billions of roubles. Still there was the longer pollution of the soil, the deaths of a number of people and consequences that will be far reaching." – Mikhail Gorbachev, 20061
Global 2000 / Friends of the Earth Austria has released an updated dated version of an important report on the Chernobyl health impacts.2 Written by radiation biologist Dr Ian Fairlie, the report incorporates the findings of many relevant studies produced in the 10 years since the original 'TORCH' report was published.
The subject matter is inordinately complex but Fairlie explains a host of technicalities in language that anyone can understand. Thus the report is not only an invaluable, up-to-date report on the health effects of the Chernobyl disaster, but it also doubles as a good primer on the radiation/health debates.
Fairlie summarizes the main impacts:
- 5 million people in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia still live in highly contaminated areas, and 400 million people in less contaminated areas.
- 37% of Chernobyl's fallout deposited on western Europe; 42% of western Europe contaminated.
- Initially, about 116,000 people were evacuated, and later an additional 230,000 people were resettled.
- 40,000 fatal cancers predicted across Europe (based on an estimated collective dose of 400,000 person-Sieverts and a linear no-threshold derived risk estimate of 0.1 fatal cancers per person-Sievert).
- 6,000 thyroid cancer cases to date, 16,000 more expected.
- Increased radiogenic thyroid cancers now seen in Austria: 8–41% of increased thyroid cancer cases after 1990 in Austria may be due to Chernobyl.
- Increased incidences of leukemia well established among the clean-up workers in Ukraine and Russia with very high risk factors. Slightly lower leukemia risks were observed among residents of seriously contaminated areas in Ukraine and Belarus. Indications of increased leukemia risks among infants have been observed in Slovakia, Germany, Greece, Italy and Belarus, but research that would clarify the matter has been stalled mainly by lack of funding.
- Increases in solid cancers were observed among clean-up workers in Belarus and Ukraine but their relative risks (20% to 50%) were considerably lower than the 700% increases observed for thyroid cancer, and the 200% to 500% increases observed for leukemia.
- Several new studies have confirmed increased risks of cardiovascular disease and stroke after Chernobyl. It is recommended that further studies be funded and carried out on radiogenic cardiovascular diseases. As current radiation dose limits around the world are based on cancer risks alone, it is recommended that they should be tightened to take into account cardiovascular disease and stroke risks as well.
- A recent very large study observed statistically significant increases in nervous system birth defects in highly contaminated areas in Russia, similar to the elevated rates of such birth defects observed in highly contaminated areas in Ukraine. The International Agency for Research on Cancer should be funded to carry out a comprehensive study of birth defects, particularly nervous system defects and Down Syndrome after Chernobyl.
The report notes that many restrictions on contaminated foodstuffs have now been lifted but they remain in some areas on wild reindeer, boar, deer, wild mushrooms, berries and carnivore fish. Areas of Germany, Austria, Italy, Sweden, Finland, Lithuania and Poland still have raised caesium-137 contamination levels in natural or wild foodstuffs. Caesium-137 contamination will persist for a long time into the future (as is also the case in Fukushima Prefecture).
The report states that recent studies provide strong evidence of decreased health indicators among children living in contaminated areas in Belarus and Ukraine, including impaired lung function and increased breathing difficulties lowered blood counts high anaemia levels and more colds, and raised levels of immunoglobulin fluctuation.
Fairlie reflects on the ill-health of children:
"A health factor which has received insufficient consideration in epidemiology studies is the general poor health of children still living in highly contaminated areas in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia.
"In adults, many commentators have remarked on the marked general deterioration in health indicators in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. For example, between 1990 and 2005, the average lifespan for a male adults in Russia decreased from 70 to 61 years and in the Ukraine from 67 to 61 years: in western Europe, the average male life span is >75. Some of the complex factors involved in the considerable declines in health indicators in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia are described in [a 2002 United Nations Development Programme] report. However without access to government data, it is difficult to assess whether continued exposures to low residual levels of radioactivity are a factor.
"But it is not just adult life expectancy: anecdotally many children complain of ill health and many visitors remark on the poor health status of children in badly affected areas. Western science, of course, demands epidemiological evidence rather than anecdotal reports but this evidence has not been available – often due to the lack of central funding.
"However these problems have appeared so acute and clear to thousands of non-medical lay visitors and to medical staff that in the 1990s and 2000s they established charities to bring the children of Chernobyl to their own countries in the West (including US and Canada) for temporary respites from high radioactivity levels. Scores of these NGOs now exist at international, national and local levels and each year they bring thousands of Chernobyl children to their own countries and homes. Without exception, these groups observed improvements in the health of invited children.
"In the past, these groups were unfortunately ignored on the grounds that the observed improvements in these children were subjective and due to the improvements in outlook and temperament that everyone experiences on holiday.
"Recent authoritative studies have shed much-needed light on this matter: they indicate beyond reasonable doubt that radiation exposures to children living in contaminated areas are implicated in their poor healths. It is therefore unsurprising that their healths improve when they visit abroad."
The report notes that civil society has partially filled the void left by governments and nuclear agencies:
"Unfortunately some international nuclear agencies and national authorities remain in denial about the
scale of the health disaster caused by Chernobyl. This is shown by their continuing refusal to devote resources to humanitarian aid, rehabilitation and disaster management.
"This is regrettable: however there is one silver lining. Many thousands of concerned citizens throughout the world have mobilised to help stricken people in the three countries most seriously affected. Hundreds of local, national and international voluntary groups have been established especially to help the children in these areas. This help includes visits abroad for tens of thousands of children to provide respites from their radioactively contaminated homelands. This report provides strong epidemiological evidence that such visits are indeed helpful.
"Hundreds of doctors from many countries also work pro bono in contaminated territories, helping to minimize Chernobyl's health consequences.
"These humanitarian actions are sorely needed and welcome. They constitute a silent rebuke of the disregard shown by some international nuclear agencies and national authorities towards the continuing plight of affected children in Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia."
Fairlie argues for improved preparedness for future accidents by means of the following:
- providing stable iodine to all citizens within at least 30 km of all nuclear reactors;
- stocking emergency levels of radioactivity-free water supplies, long-life milk and dried food supplies;
- distributing information leaflets to the public explaining what to do in the event of an emergency and explaining why precautionary measures are necessary;
- planning evacuations;
- constructing and staffing permanent emergency evacuation centres;
- carrying out emergency evacuation drills;
- planning subsequent support of evacuated populations;
- planning how to help those who choose to remain in contaminated areas; and
- increasing the mental health training of primary physicians and nurses.
1. Reuters, 9 June 2006, 'Gorbachev warns against new nuclear power plants'
2. Ian Fairlie, March 2016, 'TORCH-2016: An independent scientific evaluation of the health-related effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster',