Chernobyl Legacy Not as Dark as Feared

20 years later, international report finds reasons for hope

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By Amanda Gardner
HealthDay Reporter

MONDAY, Sept. 5, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Almost 20 years after the worst nuclear accident in history, a massive report by an international team of scientists, economists and health experts finds that the legacy of Chernobyl is terrible, but not as terrible as once predicted.

The report released Monday concludes that up to 4,000 people could eventually die of radiation exposure, many of them the on-site staff and emergency workers called to deal with the 1986 catastrophe at the nuclear power plant in the Ukraine. But as drastic as that sounds, initial predictions speculated that the death toll would climb into the tens of thousands.

It also found that most of the five million people living in contaminated areas received doses of radiation within acceptable limits when the No. 4 reactor exploded, spreading a radioactive cloud over much of Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and parts of Western Europe, killing 30 people and forcing the evacuation and relocation of 350,000 more.

And while there are also economic, environmental and psychological effects, the overall toll seems not to be as devastating as once predicted: As of mid-2005, fewer than 50 deaths had been directly attributed to radiation from the disaster, mostly workers, but also 15 children, nine of whom died of thyroid cancer.

"Clearly, it is the most horrific nuclear accident in history, and there's no getting around that," said Dr. Fred Mettler, Jr., chairman of one of the three expert groups involved in putting the report together and a radiologist at Albuquerque Veterans Affairs Medical Center in New Mexico. "[But] it is not something that is so devastating that it can't be managed, and this report points out is that the situation is manageable."

The 600-page report, called Chernobyl's Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts, was a mammoth undertaking by hundreds of experts in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia as well as eight United Nations agencies. Members of the forum, including representatives of the three governments, will meet Tuesday and Wednesday in Vienna to discuss the findings.

"To get eight U.N. agencies with completely different missions and three governments to get a consensus on something was astounding," said Mettler, who made 22 trips to all three countries, escorting teams of 20 doctors at a time, over the course of a year.

The report does, ultimately, provide data on an area where there is a sore lack of information.

"If one is trying to get any possible good out of this, it may be possible to get some additional data about the effects of radiation on exposed populations," said G. Donald Frey, a medical physicist in the department of radiology at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. "This is a much larger population than anything we've had to deal with in the past other than the Japanese A-bomb survivors."

Here are some additional findings from the report:

  • Some 4,000 cases of thyroid cancer, mainly in children and adolescents, can be attributed to the Chernobyl tragedy. Although at least nine children have died, the survival rate stands at almost 99 percent. This cancer is slow-growing, however "These kids need to be followed and checked for recurrence," Mettler said.
  • There may be a slight increase in the incidence of leukemia and of solid cancers and circulatory system diseases. However, Mettler pointed out that it's difficult to determine whether cancer rates are changing because there are no reliable baseline estimates in the former Soviet Union state. Also, the lifespan of men in Russia has dropped a decade since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. "When you're looking for small increases in cancer, you have a sudden drop in life spans and you don't have good records, it makes things difficult," he said.
  • There is no evidence of decreased fertility among people who were exposed to the radiation, nor has there been any evidence of congenital malformation in their offspring.
  • Mental health is a critical issue faced by survivor of the disaster. "People don't have timely and accurate information, and this has caused serious troubles," Mettler said. "Kids who were exposed who are now 20 years old have been called Chernobyl invalids. They have an annual medical exam by 20 doctors so they think for sure something's wrong."
  • Experts noted an increased incidence of cataracts that may or may not interfere with vision. The problems occurred at doses lower than generally though to be a problem. "We need to know what the natural history of these is. Are they going to get worse or stabilize?" Mettler said. "That has big implications for lots of people besides Chernobyl, for example, radiologists and interventional cardiologists who are getting their eyes exposed at work today."
  • Except for the 30-kilometer perimeter immediately surrounding the reactor and isolated other areas, radiation levels have returned to acceptable levels. Strontium and caesium will remain a concern for decades to come.
  • Some structural elements of the sarcophagus built to hold the damaged reactor have degraded and pose risks.

And here are some of the report's key recommendations:

  • Focus assistance, including government programs, on the most contaminated areas and people affected by them and away from low-priority areas.
  • Continue monitoring workers and other highly exposed individuals, children for thyroid cancer, and the environment. Discontinue monitoring of individuals who have not had high exposure, Mettler urged.
  • Above all, get accurate information to the public in a timely manner.

"Hopefully, if we can get all these pieces to the people and do it right, we can reduce the impact," Mettler said. "I don't think it will every go away."

More information

This site gives more information on the causes and immediate results of the Chernobyl disaster.

SOURCES: Fred Mettler, Jr., M.D., radiologist, radiology and nuclear medicine department, Albuquerque Veterans Affairs Medical Center and clinical professor of radiology and nuclear medicine, University of New Mexico School of Medicine, Albuquerque; G. Donald Frey, Ph.D., medical physicist, department of radiology, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston; Sept. 5, 2005, Chernobyl Forum report, Chernobyl's Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts

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