Leukemia and cataracts remain chief health issues of Chernobyl accident

Increases in leukaemia and cataracts are emerging as the most obvious long-term effects radiation exposure from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in 1986 is considered the world’s worst ever nuclear accident. It led to the resettlement of over 330,000 people living close to the plant. Gerry Adams reports.

As we approach the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear accident, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, UNSCEAR, has released a report that says the scale and nature of the health consequences of the incident essentially have not changed. Malcolm Crick is the Secretary of UNSCEAR:

Crick 1: In the last decade, lots of new research information has become available and that’s helped us understand the details of what’s been going on. And scientifically, it’s very interesting – a lot of new stuff. But really the overall picture – the scale and nature of the health consequences – are really unchanged from the assessment that was made in 2000.

Narrator: The report says that 134 plant staff and emergency workers suffered acute radiation syndrome, ARS, from high doses of radiation. ARS occurs when the body is exposed to high doses of radiation over a short period of time. Fred Mettler is a member of the Committee:

Mettler 1: There were over 200 individuals initially who were thought to have acute radiation syndrome and after follow up and appropriate diagnosis, that number was culled down to about 134. There were of course 28 people who died acutely in the first month or so, many from skin injuries associated with the acute radiation syndrome.

Narrator: Another effect the report mentions is the incidence of leukaemia. Although several hundred thousand people, as well as emergency workers, were involved in recovery operations, there is no consistent evidence of health effects that can be attributed to radiation exposure except for increased incidences of leukaemia and cataracts. The report says leukaemia and cataracts occur more often in those who received higher doses of radiation during the 1986 nuclear disaster. Again Mr. Mettler:

Mettler 3: Obviously one of the issues that everyone is concerned about is leukaemia. Leukaemia should show up fairly quickly and the risk of leukaemia should drop off after 15 or 20 years. So it should have been pretty obvious by now. Unfortunately for reasons that are not clear, while there is an indication of increased leukaemia in both some children’s studies and some liquidator studies, they are not really statistically significant at this point.

Narrator: The report also says that it is not possible to state scientifically that radiation caused a particular cancer in an individual. But a connection has been found between thyroid cancer and those who were children at the time of the accident:

Mettler 2: The second clear indication is obviously the thyroid cancer incidence occurring essentially in those who were children at the time of exposure. The number of cases is clearly in excess of 6,000 at this point. The good news is that thyroid cancer has a mortality rate of less than 10 percent and usually less than five percent. The real question is what will happen in the future and will that thyroid cancer incidence continue in this population group until they are adults. It may well and so that is an area that will need careful follow-up.

Narrator: We asked Wolfgang Weiss, Chairman of UNSCEAR, if the effects of the Chernobyl nuclear accident would be seen for generation after generation:

Wolfgang 1: Well, there are two answers. One is the inter-generational risk. If the mother got exposed, is there a risk for the child. We know very well from the bomb survivors that the risk there is so small that you don’t care about it. The second thing is of course if they are newborns who live in this are who drink milk which is contaminated or eat food which is contaminated, they have the same risk as people in the first generation.

Narrator: UNSCEAR, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, was established in 1955 to report on the effects of radiation exposure.

duration: 2’46″

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