Health Effects Of Chernobyl Nuclear Crisis Remain Unknown 25 Years After Incident

Though it has been 25 years since a disastrous explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine sent radioactive material into the air, affecting Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, as well as the rest of the world, “experts are still debating the long-term health effects of the disaster,” the Los Angeles Times’ “Booster Shots” blog reports.

About 30 people died in the immediate aftermath of the explosion, several more died of radiation poisoning over the next decade, and in 2008, the U.N. released a report concluding that 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer among young people were linked to the disaster (Brown, 4/26).

Fred Mettler, a radiologist with a U.N. radiation study group, said the incident has caused about 7,000 cases of thyroid cancer, which is rare and known to be caused by exposure to radioactive iodine, NPR’s “Morning Edition” reports.  While most of these cases have been cured, more cases are expected. “We don’t know whether that risk will go down over time or keep going up or level off. That’s probably the biggest thing that will be studied and focused on,” Mettler said (Joyce, 4/26).

“Institutional failure aside, attempts by the international research community to learn and implement the public health lessons of Chernobyl have been less than effective,” according to a BMJ editorial, which calls for more study into the “long term health effects” of Chernobyl (Baverstock, 4/26).

The Union of Concerned Scientists has suggested “that excess cancers and cancer deaths worldwide will number in the tens of thousands, or even higher,” because of radiation released from Chernobyl, according to “Booster Shots” (4/26). And a Lancet Oncology comment this week said exact numbers may never be known because of “considerable logistical challenges in doing epidemiological research in countries of the former Soviet Union,” including “[l]ittle expertise in chronic epidemiology at the time, language barriers, cultural differences, and the daily challenges in covering a very large study area.”

However, the authors added that the recent incident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan “sadly…offer[s] another opportunity to study the cancer consequences of accidents at nuclear power plants” because Japan has studied the effects of radiation for decades and has the ability to organize reliable epidemiological studies (Moysich et al., 4/26).

In a fact sheet on ionizing radiation, the WHO outlines its activities to study the health effects of Chernobyl and presents an FAQ fact sheet (.pdf) on the incident and its effects (4/23).

International NGOs Criticize WHO Handling Of Nuclear Crises

An Inter Press Service article summarizes criticisms of the WHO’s handling of nuclear crises by IndependentWHO, an international coalition of non-governmental organizations, which says a 1959 agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency hinders the WHO’s abilities to respond to such incidents.

In a statement, IndependentWHO says the agreement makes the organization “subservient” to the IAEA and prevents it from “taking any initiative or action to achieve its objectives: the preservation and the improvement of health,” IPS reports. 

Under the agreement, “the nuclear lobby has managed to get the WHO to renounce taking care of the victims of nuclear disasters,” Swiss academic Jean Ziegler, who currently is vice president of the U.N. Human Rights Council’s Advisory Committee, said, according to IPS.

Wladimir Tchertkoff, a Russian-born Swiss journalist who has produced seven television documentaries on Chernobyl, cited a book published by the New York Academy of Sciences in 2009 that estimates 985,000 people died as a result of the accident between 1986 and 2004. He added that the WHO “cannot do much because it is a victim” of the situation created under the 1959 agreement, IPS reports. In regard to the Fukushima accident, Tchertkoff said, “The WHO doesn’t know what to do,” according to the news service.

IPS states it requested an interview with WHO Director of Public Health and Environment Maria Neira, but “received no response from the WHO with regard to these accusations” (Capdevila, 4/27).

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