Reassessing the effects of the 1986 Chernobyl Disaster

Dawn Biehler's picture

By Kate Brown


“Chernobyl,” a Ukrainian journalist once quipped, “is something we remember once a year.”


On April 26, 2017, the global news media will dutifully remember the 1986 explosion of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power plant in northern Ukraine, then a republic of the Soviet Union. The 31st anniversary will likely differ little from earlier anniversaries. The public will likely see haunting photos of the abandoned city of Pripiat, and beautiful photos of wolves and moose in the Chernobyl ecological reserve, created inside the evacuated 30-kilometer ring around the plant in the weeks after the disaster. Photos of animals in the Zone are often used to make an argument that nature rights itself even after the world’s worst nuclear disaster. Nature, in this formula, includes humans. “Life has returned to normal” the website of the International Atomic Energy Agency states, “in much of the affected area, and people are carrying on with their daily activities.”


Traveling along the southern edge of the Chernobyl Zone of Alienation this summer, I noticed that residents of contaminated regions had adapted to their precarious existence not by returning to dairy farming and raising pigs and cattle, as they had before the accident, but by harvesting the most radioactive products in their environment—wild berries and mushrooms—which are then sold into European markets as wild and organic. In 1986, the European Community established a high, emergency permissible norm for food products of 600 becquerel per kilogram. Emergency norms are supposed to be temporary, good for safe guidelines until the emergency is deemed over. Because of differences of opinion and inaction, the European parliament never lowered the emergency norm.


Meanwhile in contaminated regions of Ukraine and Belarus, no official ever recommended re-starting the regional economy by means of the sale of radioactive forest products. Selling radioactive berries to EU markets occurred outside any rational plan. Locals cannot afford the big investments needed for dairy or wheat farming. All they require to pick berries is a plastic bucket and a ride to the forest. And the returns are big. Pickers can make $25 a day selling berries, half the monthly salary of a public school teacher. P


It is hard to know the biological cost of this exchange of Chernobyl-contaminated berries for euros because there has been little public discussion and almost no medical research on the long-term, low-dose ingestion of radioactive isotopes. When commenting on health effects from the disaster, most reporters use information provided by the World Health Organization website. The WHO information sheet on Chernobyl health effects states that 28 emergency workers died of radiation sickness soon after the accident, that there was a rise in leukemia among emergency workers, and that a large fraction of 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer among children were likely attributable to radioactive iodine intake. That is the sum total of reported damage. The WHO website cites studies no later than 2006, when it published with the International Atomic Energy Agency the Chernobyl Forum Report. When the Forum Report was published, researchers and activists were outraged by what they saw was a minimization of Chernobyl’s health effects. Greenpeace estimated that a million people would be harmed by Chernobyl radiation. The Ukrainian government last year put the death toll among Ukrainians from Chernobyl at 150,000. Unfortunately, however, the Chernobyl Forum Report, despite the controversy, has managed to become the consensus on assessments of Chernobyl’s health effects.


A person doesn’t have to look far, however, to see evidence that more was going on than the 28 original deaths and 6,000 cases of childhood thyroid cancer. I found in archival records that UN agencies, including the WHO and the IAEA, worked in the early nineties to gain control over Chernobyl health assessments and minimize them. UN staffers and UN-appointed scientific experts denied and disappeared evidence they had verified as they fought off recognition from 1990 to 1996 of a childhood thyroid cancer epidemic. I found in Ministry of Health records of the former USSR a great wash of documentation indicating that regions most contaminated from Chernobyl fallout experienced in the first five years after the accident a slowly advancing public health disaster. Regional public health officials tracked an alarming rise in several disease categories. Adults and children suffered from a wide range of puzzling problems—from dizziness, dry mouth, headaches, and nose bleeds to chronic disease of the digestive track, respiratory, circulation and immune systems. More women than before had trouble getting pregnant, staying pregnant and having babies that thrived. That evidence is now thirty years old. A survey of more recent research finds tracks with some of these findings.


Wladimir Wertelecki, a medical geneticist at the University of California, San Diego and his colleagues in the Rivni Province of Ukraine have been tracking birth defects since 2000. The Rivni Province, 200 miles West of Chernobyl, was less contaminated than those immediately surrounding the plant. Wertelecki and his colleagues followed all 96,438 births in the Province from 2000 to 2010. They found the province as a whole had a record of neural tube birth defects, microcephaly and microphthalmia that was one of the highest in Europe. In the most contaminated northern margins of the province the rates are yet higher, instead of 18.3 birth defects for every 10,000 live births, they recorded 27.0.  In a later study, Wertelecki’s group found that the whole body counts of cesium 137 in people in the northern Polesian of Rivni are higher than officially permissible upper limits.


Other researchers have found that children in Chernobyl regions have unusually high rates of irritable bowel syndrome, which might be linked also to immune system disorders.[1] A Harvard researcher found a significant elevation of dental cavities in children in contaminated regions of Ukraine over those in non-contaminated regions caused, the authors found, by a permanent decrease in salivary production and flow.[2] Another study showed a significant association between childhood exposure to cesium 137 in local soils and decreased lung capacity and increased airway reactivity, caused by damage to developing lungs from frequent childhood bronchial infections.[3] All authors of the small and sparsely-funded Chernobyl studies comment that few or no studies have been done on the subjects they examine.


Historians Susanne Bauer, Christopher Sellers, and Hiroshi Ichikawa have written about how Soviet scientists during the Cold War took a different trajectory than their western counterparts. Bauer records how Soviet researchers used the human body as a tool to record environmental damage.[4] Sellers argues Soviet toxicologists were less attached to industry science and more interested in protecting workers in factories.[5] Hiroshi Ichikawa finds that Soviet scientists, mobilized by the damage they saw among people near Soviet testing grounds and nuclear weapons sites, emerged as important activists internationally to end nuclear testing.[6] Soviet doctors, these historians find, were performing more sensitive, more body-centered research on industrial toxins than their counterparts in the West. Perhaps it is time to take another more serious look at the Soviet Chernobyl medical records to reach a new consensus on the disaster’s effects.  


[1] M.R. Sheikh Sajjadieh, L. V. Kuznetsova, V. B. Bojenko, “Low internal radiation alters innate immune status in children with clinical symptom of irritable bowel syndrome,” Toxicol Ind Health. 2010; 26: 525-31.

[2] K. Spivak, C. Hayes, J. H. Maguire, “Caries prevalence, oral health behavior, and attitudes in children residing in radiation-contaminated and non-contaminated towns in Ukraine,” Community Dent Oral Epidemiology, 2004; 32: 1-9.

[3] Erik R. Svendsen, “Cesium 137 exposure and Spirometry Measures in Ukrainian Children Affected by the Chernobyl Nuclear Incident,” Environmental Health Perspectives, volume 1181 number 51 May 2010.

[4] Susanne Bauer, “Mutations in Soviet Public Health Science: Post-Lysenko Medical Genetics, 1969–1991,” Studies in History & Philosophy of Biological & Biomedical Sciences 47 (September 2014): 163–72.

[5] Christopher Sellers, “The Cold War over the Worker’s Body: Cross-National Clashes over Maximum Allowable Concentrations in the Post-World War II Era,” Toxicants, Health and Regulation since 1945, ed. Soraya Boudia and Nathalie Jas (Londres: Pickering and Chatto, 2013): 24-45.

[6] Hiroshi Ichikawa, “Radiation Studies and Soviet Scientists in the Second Half of the 1950s,” Historia Scientiarum Vol. 25‒1, 2015: 78-93.