Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment
This is the “Forward” as an opening salvo : –
More than 22 years have passed since the Chernobyl catastrophe burst upon and changed our world. In just a few days, the air, natural waters, flowers, trees, woods, rivers, and seas turned to potential sources of danger to people, as radioactive substances emitted by the destroyed reactor fell upon all life. Throughout the Northern Hemisphere radioactivity covered most living spaces and became a source of potential harm for all living things.
Naturally, just after the failure, public response was very strong and demonstrated mistrust of atomic engineering. A number of countries decided to stop the construction of new nuclear power stations. The enormous expenses required to mitigate the negative consequences of Chernobyl at once “raised the price” of nuclear-generated electric power. This response disturbed the governments of many countries, international organizations, and official bodies in charge of nuclear technology and led to a paradoxical polarization as to how to address the issues of those injured by the Chernobyl catastrophe and the effects of chronic irradiation on the health of people living in contaminated areas.
Owing to the polarization of the problem, instead of organizing an objective and comprehensive study of the radiological and radiobiological phenomena induced by small doses of radiation, anticipating possible negative consequences, and taking adequate measures, insofar as possible, to protect the population from possible negative effects, apologists of nuclear power began a blackout on data concerning the actual amounts of radioactive emissions, the doses of radiation, and the increasing morbidity among the people that were affected.
When it became impossible to hide the obvious increase in radiation-related diseases, attempts were made to explain it away as being a result of nationwide fear. At the same time some concepts of modern radiobiology were suddenly revised. For example, contrary to elementary observations about the nature of the primary interactions of ionizing radiation and the molecular structure of cells, a campaign began to deny non-threshold radiation effects. On the basis of the effects of small doses of radiation in some nonhuman systems where hormesis was noted, some scientists began to insist that such doses from Chernobyl would actually benefit humans and all other living things.
The apogee of this situation was reached in 2006 on the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl meltdown. By that time the health and quality of life had decreased for millions of people. In April 2006 in Kiev, Ukraine, two international conferences were held in venues close to one another: one was convened by supporters of atomic energy and the other by a number of international organizations alarmed by the true state of health of those affected by the Chernobyl catastrophe. The decision of the first conference has not been accepted up to now because the Ukrainian party disagrees with its extremely optimistic positions. The second conference unanimously agreed that radioactive contamination of large areas is accompanied by distinctly negative health consequences for the populations and predicted increased risk of radiogenic diseases in European countries in the coming years.
For a long time I have thought that the time has come to put an end to the opposition between technocracy advocates and those who support objective scientific approaches to estimate the negative risks for people exposed to the Chernobyl fallout. The basis for believing that these risks are not minor is very convincing.
Declassified documents of that time issued by Soviet Union/Ukraine governmental commissions in regard to the first decade after 1986 contain data on a number of people who were hospitalized with acute radiation sickness. The number is greater by two orders of magnitude than was recently quoted in official documents. How can we understand this difference in calculating the numbers of individuals who are ill as a result of irradiation? It is groundless to think that the doctors’ diagnoses were universally wrong. Many knew in the first 10-day period after the meltdown that diseases of the
nasopharynx were widespread. We do not know the quantity or dose of hot particles that settled in the nasopharyngeal epithelium to cause this syndrome. They were probably higher than the accepted figures.
To estimate doses of the Chernobyl catastrophe over the course of a year, it is critical to consider the irradiation contributed by ground and foliage fallout, which contaminated various forms of food with short-half-life radionuclides. Even in 1987 activity of some of the radionuclides exceeded the contamination by Cs-137 and Sr-90. Thus decisions to calculate dose only on the scale of Cs-137 radiation led to obvious underestimation of the actual accumulated effective doses. Internal radiation doses were defined on the basis of the activity in milk and potatoes for different areas. Thus in the Ukrainian Poles’ region, where mushrooms and other forest products make up a sizable share of the food consumed, the radioactivity was not considered.
The biological efficiency of cytogenic effects varies depending on whether the radiation is external or internal: internal radiation causes greater damage, a fact also neglected. Thus, there is reason to believe that doses of irradiation have not been properly estimated, especially for the first year after the reactor’s failure. Data on the growth of morbidity over two decades after the catastrophe confirm this conclusion. First of all, there are very concrete data about malignant thyroid disease in children, so even supporters of “radiophobia” as the principal cause of disease do not deny it. With the passage of time, oncological diseases with longer latency periods, in particular, breast and lung cancers’, became more frequent.
From year to year there has been an increase in nonmalignant diseases, which has raised the incidence of overall morbidity in children in areas affected by the catastrophe, and the percent of practically healthy children has continued to decrease. For example, in Kiev, Ukraine, where before the meltdown, up to 90% of children were considered healthy, the figure is now 20%. In some Ukrainian Poles’e territories, there are no healthy children,
and morbidity has essentially increased for all age groups. The frequency of disease has increased several times since the accident at Chernobyl. Increased cardiovascular disease with increased frequency of heart attacks and ischemic disease are evident. Average life expectancy is accordingly reduced. Diseases of the central nervous system in both children and adults are cause for concern. The incidence of eye problems, particularly cataracts, has increased sharply. Causes for alarm are complications of pregnancy and the state of health of children born to so-called “liquidators” (Chernobyl’s cleanup workers) and evacuees from zones of high radionuclide contamination.
Against the background of such persuasive data, some defenders of atomic energy look specious as they deny the obvious negative effects of radiation upon populations. In fact, their reactions include almost complete refusal to fund medical and biological studies, even liquidating government bodies that were in charge of the “affairs of Chernobyl.” Under pressure from the nuclear lobby, officials have also diverted scientific personnel away from studying the problems caused by Chernobyl.
Rapid progress in biology and medicine is a source of hope in finding ways to prevent many diseases caused by exposure to chronic nuclear radiation, and this research will advance much more quickly if it is carried out against the background of experience that Ukrainian, Belarussian, and Russian scientists and physicians gained after the Chernobyl catastrophe. It would be very wrong to neglect the opportunities that are open to us today. We must look toward the day that unbiased objectivity will win out and lead to unqualified support for efforts to determine the influence of the Chernobyl catastrophe on the health of people and biodiversity and shape our approach to future technological progress and general moral attitudes. We must hope and trust that this will happen.
The present volume probably provides the largest and most complete collection of data concerning the negative consequences of Chernobyl on the health of people and on the environment. Information in this volume shows that these consequences do not decrease, but, in fact, are increasing and will continue to do so into the future. The main conclusion of the book is that it is impossible and wrong “to forget Chernobyl.” Over the next several future generations the health of people and of nature will continue to be adversely impacted.
PROF. DR. BIOL. DIMITRO M. GRODZINSKY
Chairman, Department of General Biology, Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences,
Chairman, Ukrainian National Commission on Radiation Protection
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