4. Health consequences of Chernobyl (2022)

Moreover, given the latency of 10 years or more for thyroid cancers, it was not yet possible to observe thyroid cancers. All liquidators and evacuated people were left out in the study. The IAEA knew this. It was probably also not so naive as to believe the Russian data were sufficient to draw conclusions from. The conclusion must therefore be that the IAEA deliberately tried to mislead and deceive the public.

In 1994, Dr. M. Rosen, director of the IAEA, claimed that the health effects to the surrounding population would be sufficiently small, so small as not to be discernible through epidemiological studies, except for the apparent, expected and regrettable increase in thyroid cancer among children.13

Soon after the catastrophe, it became clear that the USSR had intentionally withheld crucial information, for several reasons:

According to a nuclear industry magazine, the Soviet Union's suppression of information vital to understanding the causes and consequences of the accident looks 'more like a matter of deliberate deception'.14 Some examples:

On account of the above, it is clear that the authorities were guilty of causing more thyroid cancers among children.

Inexplicably high number of thyroid cancers

Thyroid cancer experts are becoming more and more concerned or even distressed over the extraordinary increase in recent years in the number of thyroid cancers among children and liquidators. Thyroid cancer is caused by radiation from iodine-131. As almost 100 percent of all iodine-131 present in the core of Chernobyl's ill-fated reactor 4 was released, people in the contaminated regions were exposed to high doses just by breathing. Although the half-life of iodine-131 is only eight days, the radioactivity was so high that thyroid glands, especially of children and the unborn, were severely damaged. The damage was done during the first forty days after the catastrophe.

There is no question any more about the increase of thyroid cancers, nor much discussion about the total numbers. Although the latency time for thyroid cancer is normally 10-15 years, the number of thyroid cancers began to rise in 1990 - just four years after the accident.16 Studies of Japan's A-bomb survivors show that the incidence of thyroid cancer started to increase significantly ten years after the A-bomb explosions.17

The 10- to 100-fold increase in child thyroid gland cancers in 1994 compared to pre-Chernobyl figures in the most affected areas in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia is much higher than any scientist had expected. In the most contaminated area, Gomel in southern Belarus, the number of children with thyroid cancer has increased every year since 1986 from less than 1 per million before 1986 to more than 200 per million in 1994. Since 1986, doctors have thus far diagnosed 680 cases of thyroid cancer in children, ten of whom have died.18

Even a release of radioactive Iodium-131 ten times bigger than that reported by the Russians in 1986 cannot explain this 100- to 200-fold increase in thyroid cancers. All the more so because scientists did not expect this big increase, and especially not so soon. The pattern of cancers is also very much different from the patterns known till now. There are four alarming developments:19

  1. There are much more thyroid cancers than expected;
  2. They appear much sooner than expected;
  3. The distribution over girls and boys is else than expected.
  4. The cancers grow more quickly than expected.

The experts in this field have proposed several explanations, which cannot explain, however, all observed facts. A factor which can partly explain the abnormal growth of cancer is the fact that a big part of the population of Belarus and Ukraine suffered from goiter, which is caused by a shortage of iodine in the food. When a person has goiter, his thyroid gland takes up the available iodine much more efficiently.20 Another possible partial explanation is the fact that the thyroid glands were exposed to very high radiation doses during a relatively long time. First via ingestion through breathing, later through the drinking of contaminated milk. A report of the UNSCEAR (United Nations Scientific Committee on Sources and Effects of Atomic Radiation) published in 1994 uses a risk-coefficient to express the consequences of radiation on the thyroid gland. If this factor is known and also the amount of radiation, you can calculate theoretically the expected number of thyroid cancers.21 It is gruesome that the number of thyroid cancers in the contaminated areas is ten times higher than expected on the basis of these calculations. Higher numbers in the near future are expected.22

Long-term consequences

Nine million people (2.5 million in Belarus, 3.5 million in Ukraine, 3 million in Russia) still live in contaminated areas, still eat radioactive food, drink radioactive liquids, breath radioactive air. The consequences will be felt for centuries. 23 Eighty days after Chernobyl, the iodine-131 totally disappeared through radioactive decay. Cancers caused by it, however, will occur for many more years in the future.

From a reading of Table II (which is, sorry!, only aviable in the printed version), it becomes clear that cesium-137, which has a half-life of 30 years, poses the greatest danger. This is so because cesium-137 will stay in the food-chain and will not disappear completely before 300 years. Thus, not only the present generation will suffer from its radioactivity, but also many future generations.

Radiation not only triggers an epidemic of cancers - thyroid, lung, skin breast and stomach cancers - but also increases the incidence of strokes, heart attacks and liver disease, the weakening of the immune system, as well as damaging the brains of babies in the womb.

After the A-bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it took 20 to 30 years for increases in breast, lung, gastric and colon cancers to be detected. Doctors in Belarus now claim that the incidence of these cancers has already risen.24

The authorities consider arable land as 'clean' if its contamination density is lower than 37,000 Bq (37 kBq) cesium-137/m2. However, through accumulation by mushrooms, contamination levels, higher than permissible levels, occur already at a contamination level of 7.4 kBq/m2. Far worse, agricultural production nowadays is permitted in territories with more than 1480 kBq/m2.25

Radiation doses are higher than calculated because the contamination level of food is higher than officially assumed. Privately produced foodstuff is almost not controlled at all, because this is not marketed. Hence, highly contaminated food is not destroyed, but consumed. Due to the economic crisis, more and more food is produced privately. This practice is dictated by the shortage of money, which prevents the people from buying uncontaminated food for humans and fodder for cattle from elsewhere.

The main dose-forming factors for internal radiation of the population, including persons not living on the contaminated territories, are the radionuclides (cesium, strontium, plutonium and americium) in milk and meat products, with concentrations several hundred times higher than pre-accident levels and often above the permitted levels. These radionuclides in the soil, plants, water and air will stay in the food chain for hundreds of years.

In the Gomel region, 23% of the children received doses which exceeded 1000 mSv, very high compared to the ICRP limit of 0.4 mSv/yr. The second highest doses - up to 500 mSv - were absorbed by the 800,000 liquidators and by the 135,000 people from the evacuation zone, who were mostly evacuated after up to 10 days. After five years, more than 50% of the liquidators contracted some sort of disease.26 The frequency of thyroid diseases among them increased 40 times.

The radiological situation in Belarus is determined by the heavy contamination of a quarter of its territories and the presence of radionuclides in the natural and agricultural ecosystems. These cause a plurality of ways of external and internal irradiation of the population and will jeopardise its health for centuries. The permissible level of radioactive contamination of fields and food is much higher than in Western countries. The same applies for the permitted limits of irradiation doses for the public. In Belarus the public irradiation dose limit is 1 milliSievert (mSv) per year. This limit is surpassed however in many contaminated regions, where people have accumulated doses of up to 1000 mSv. The most recent ICRP dose limit is 0,4 mSv/yr. In relatively 'safe' regions in Russia, internal irradiation doses of 5-25 mSv/yr were measured in 1991/92. About 30-85% of the adult population is exposed to such irradiation yearly, in addition to the external irradiation they have received since 1986. When the internal irradiation (mainly from food) is added to the external, cumulative doses since 1986 already exceed the average lifetime 1000 mSv level, the so-called Ramzaev's level.27

It is sure that the incidence of thyroid and other cancers, which have a latency period of 10 years or more, will rise further in the next five to ten years. It is strange that health consequences of the Chernobyl catastrophe other than cancers are not mentioned in most reports. Among the liquidators, general morbidity has risen too. The funds for adequate treatment are however not available even in the most polluted country, Belarus, where 70% of all radioactivity from Chernobyl fell, nor in other heavily contaminated regions in Ukraine and Russia.

Up to now, one still hears talk that there were 'no more deaths because of radioactivity' and that Chernobyl caused 'mainly psychological effects, the so-called radiophobia'. These must be seen as nonsense and lies.

Better studies on the long-term health effects, based on the more accurate released data, must be made, together with studies on how to treat the affected people in the best way. The biggest hurdle in doing this is the grim economic and financial situation in the most affected countries: Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. They simply cannot afford to pay for the decontamination of the most polluted areas, the needed medical treatment of the victims or for uncontaminated food for the nine million people still living in the contaminated areas, who are forced to eat contaminated agricultural products from their own gardens and fields, to drink contaminated water and milk, to breath contaminated air.

Sources:

  1. Environmental Policy Review (Israel), Winter 1995; V.L.Adamovich, "Erroneous Approach Or Deafening Silence?" p.49
  2. Otto Hug Strahleninstitut (FRG), Nov. 1995; "Folgen der Tschernobyl-Katastrophe - Aktuelle Informationen" (Consequences of the Chernobyl Catastophe - Actual Information) p.4
  3. New Scientist (UK), 9 Dec. 1995; "Will it get any worse" p.14
  4. Nuclear Energy Agency, Febr. 1996; "Chernobyl Ten Years On. Radiological and Health Impact" p.28
  5. Nieuwe Beta (NL), 4 April 1987; "Lozingen uit Tsjernobyl 8 maal groter dan gemeld" (Release from Chernobyl 8 times bigger than stated) p.8,9
  6. Science, 13 June 1986; p.1331-33
  7. KfK Nachrichten (FRG), no. 3, 1986; H. Albrecht: "Zum Ablauf von Kernschmelzen-Unfaellen: Spaltprodukt-Freistellung, Source-Term und Tschernobyl-Emission"(To the End of Meltdown Accidents: Radioactive Releases, Source Term and Chernobyl Emissions) p. 150-157
  8. Gesellschaft fur ReaktorSicherheit (GRS), (FRG), Febr. 1987; "Neuere Erkenntnisse zum Unfall im Kernkraftwerk Tsjernobyl", (Newest Insights in Accident in Chernobyl Nuclear Reactor) p.39
  9. Nuclear Energy Agency, Febr. 1996; "Chernobyl Ten Years On. Radiological and Health Impact" p.28
  10. KfK Nachrichten (FRG), no 3 1986; H.Albrecht: "Zum Ablauf von Kernschmelzen-Unfällen: Spaltprodukt-Freistellung, Source-Term und Tsjernobyl-Emission" (To the End of Meltdown Accidents: Radio-active Releases, Source Term and Chernobyl Emissions) p.156
  11. New Scientist (UK), 9 Dec. 1995; "Will it get any worse" p.14
  12. The Republic Of Belarus, Nov. 1995; "Nine Years after Chernobyl. Situation, Problems, Action" p.10
  13. Anumukti (India), Oct/Nov. 1995; "Trivialising Risks" p.8
  14. Nuclear Engineering International, May 1993, p.5
  15. Nuclear Safety, Jan/June 1994; A.R.Sich: "Chernobyl Accident Management Actions" p.21-24
  16. World Health Organisation, 1995; "Health Consequences Of The Chernobyl Accident. Summary Report." p.21-24
  17. Belarus, 1995; A.E.Okeanov et al., "Health Effects Of Radiation Exposure" p.5
  18. New Scientist (UK), 9 Dec.1995; "Will it get any worse" p.14
  19. Cancer, no 2 1994; Y.Nikiforov, D.R. Gnepp, "Pediatric Thyroid Cancer after the Chernobyl Disaster" p.748-766
  20. UN, Department of Humanitarian Affairs News, Sept./Oct. 1995; K.F.Baverstock, "Who calls for more aid to help child thyroid victims"p.9-11
  21. Strahlentelex (FRG), 7 Dec. 1995; H.Ziggel, "Schilddrusenkrebs nimmt schneller zu als erwartet" (Thyroid cancer increases faster than expected) p.1-4,9
  22. Lancet (UK), 23 July 1994; T.Ito et al., "Activated RET Oncogene in Thyroid Cancers of children from areas contaminated by Chernobyl accident" p.259
  23. Otto Hug Strahleninstitut (FRG), Nov. 1995; "Folgen der Tschernobyl-Katastrophe - Aktuelle Information" (Consequences of the Chernobyl Accident - Actual Information) p.3
  24. New Scientist (UK), 9 Dec. 1995; "Will it get any worse" p.14
  25. The Republic Of Belarus, 1995; "Nine Years after Chernobyl. Sitution, Problems, Action" p.52
  26. The Republic Of Belarus, 1995; "Nine Years after Chernobyl. Sitution, Problems, Action" p.31
  27. Environmental Policy Review (Israel), Winter 1995; V.L.Adamovich, "Erroneous approach or deafening silence?" p.44-50.

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