By Richard Stone
Chernobyl's Human Fallout
By Richard Stone
The world's worst nuclear accident occurred on April 26, 1986, when an explosion ripped apart reactor number four of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Over 10 days, plumes from the burning hulk dispersed 400 times the radioactive material released by the Hiroshima bomb. Like a slow-motion train wreck, the disaster is still playing out: As affected communities marked the 20th anniversary with grim vigils last April, scientists sparred over just how deadly Chernobyl will prove to be.
The first cancer patients were children who had been exposed to high levels of radioactive iodine-131. "The youngest were highly susceptible," says radiation specialist Shunichi Yamashita of the World Health Organization. More than 4,000 cases of childhood thyroid cancer—most of them probably attributable to Chernobyl—have been reported in the three hardest-hit countries: Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. Although the disease has a high survival rate, at least 15 children have died after the cancer spread to other organs, while survivors who had thyroids removed must live with the scars, and hormone replacement therapy, for the rest of their lives.
Just how many more cancer deaths the disaster will cause is far from clear. Last September, the Chernobyl Forum, a United Nations-sponsored panel of experts, forecast 4,000 Chernobyl-related cancer deaths in the most contaminated areas; Greenpeace and some scientists have derided that figure as being an order of magnitude, or more, too low. In April, the forum estimated an additional 5,000 deaths in other contaminated areas, while the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) predicts some 16,000 Chernobyl-related cancer deaths by 2065. "While these figures reflect human suffering and death," states the IARC report, the Chernobyl toll will be a minuscule fraction of the several hundred million cancer deaths anticipated from other causes in Europe over this period.
Linking individual cases to Chernobyl is diabolically hard. However, preliminary evidence points to elevated leukemia rates among the 200,000 Soviet "liquidators" who helped clean up and entomb the Chernobyl mess in 1986. "We must closely monitor this high-risk group," says Yamashita. Others at risk include elderly evacuees who have since returned to villages in the radioactive wilderness surrounding Chernobyl. These people say they would rather die at home, even of cancer, than lead unhappy, displaced lives in distant cities.