Aftereffects of Chernobyl seen as more mental than physical
A few years old - but I thought this was interesting.
By Elisabeth Rosenthal, International Herald Tribune | September 8, 2005
ROME -- Nearly 20 years after the huge nuclear accident in Chernobyl, a new scientific report has found that its aftereffects on health and the environment have proved not as dire as scientists had previously predicted.
The report was compiled by a panel of more than 100 specialists convened by UN agencies. In light of the findings, it concludes, compensation programs for Chernobyl victims should be scaled back to end the pervasive culture of ''dependency" in the affected areas of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, which it calls ''a major barrier to the region's recovery."
According to ''Chernobyl's Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts," 4,000 deaths will probably ultimately be attributable to the accident -- a large number, but fewer than the tens of thousands of deaths that were predicted at the time.
Only 50 deaths -- all among reactor staff and cleanup personel -- can be directly attributed to acute radiation exposure after Chernobyl's Reactor 4 exploded in April 1986, according to the report. The remainder will be due to a smattering of cancers in people exposed to radiation near Chernobyl in the wake of the accident.
But for the millions more people in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, who were subjected to low levels of radioactive particles spread by the wind, health effects have proved generally minimal.
Defying previous forecasts, there has been no observed rise in the incidence of leukemia, a blood cancer widely associated with radiation exposure -- except, perhaps, a small rise among workers who were in the contaminated plant. Nor has there been any detectable decrease in fertility or increase in birth defects, concluded the expert panel, called the Chernobyl Forum.
The report concludes that ''the largest public health problem unleashed by the accident" is ''the mental health impact": Residents of the region, who view themselves as victims of a tragedy they poorly understand, are still beset by anxiety that has prevented them from restarting their lives.
''People have developed a paralyzing fatalism because they think they are at much higher risk than they are, so that leads to things like drug and alcohol use, and unprotected sex and unemployment," said Dr. Fred A. Mettler, health effect team leader of the Chernobyl Forum.
The only concrete health effect has been a somewhat unexpected outbreak of thyroid cancer in people who were young at the time of the accident and drank contaminated milk. Although 2,000 have come down with the disease, only nine have died because the disease is generally treatable.
''Early on there were all sorts of claims being made because people didn't have much accurate information," Mettler said. ''Now, at last, we have the eight UN agencies and the three governments involved coming to a consensus about the effects and what needs to be done."
Despite the relatively low level of actual risk, 7 million people in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus still receive some kind of Chernobyl benefits, from monthly stipends to university entrance preference to free therapeutic yearly holidays. In Ukraine, the number of people (and their children) designated as permanently disabled by the Chernobyl accident increased from 200 in 1991 to 64,500 in 1997 and 91,219 in 2001 -- even though the effects of radiation decline over time, the report noted.
Both Ukraine and Belarus still spend about 5 percent of their annual budget on Chernobyl victims.
Although 5 million people live in areas classified as contaminated by Chernobyl, the vast majority are exposed to very low doses of radiation, with levels no higher than citizens in areas of China, Brazil, or Great Britain, where naturally occurring background radiation in soil is relatively high.
''People were evacuated from areas that now have dose levels lower than where I live in New Mexico, said Mettler, a specialist on the health effects of nuclear radiation.
Although there is still a strong stigma against growing or eating agricultural products from anywhere in the area, concentrations of radioactivity ''in agricultural food products produced in areas affected by the Chernobyl fallout are generally below national and international action levels," the report found.
The report acknowledged that there was a small core of people, probably numbering 100,000 to 200,000, who continued to be severely affected by the disaster. These include poor rural dwellers who live in the few severely contaminated areas, people with thyroid cancer, and citizens who had been resettled in the wake of the disaster but who had never found a home or employment in their new communities.
''A small but important minority, those caught in the downward spiral, need substantial material assistance to rebuild their lives," the report said.
But for the millions of others, the first priority should be to encourage self-reliance -- to ''normalize their lives as quickly and as far as is possible," the report said.