SCIENCE -- April 8, 2011 at 4:50 PM ET
Facing Long-Term Effects of Chernobyl
Scene from the former day care facility in the town of Pripyat - the company town for the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. It was built as a shining example of the "Life Soviet" in the mid-seventies - but had to be evacuated after the explosion in Reactor #4 on April 26, 1986. People who lived there - 49,000 in all - were told to leave - but not given any indication it was forever. Later, crews came in to destroy valuables (TV's and the like) to insure no one would come back to take things that might slowly kill them.
Chernobyl's lasting impacts are not easy to package into a single story. Several of the people we interviewed for Miles O'Brien's tape report, "Revisiting Chernobyl: a Nuclear Disaster Site of Epic Proportions," had such courageous tales that it was impossible to tell them in one short news piece.
In one visit, we traveled to a hospital in Ivankiv, just outside the Exclusion Zone, where first responders were brought after fighting the radioactive fires at Chernobyl 25 years ago. The hospital building was nothing more than a tattered apartment building of broken brick, a hovel when viewed from the outside and little better on the inside. Ragged, dormitory-style beds were packed six or eight to a room, uncomfortable to look at and likely worse to rest in. An ill patient was rushed past us on a makeshift stretcher that looked to be a century old. Even doctors were embarrassed to show us the shabby environment they work in, and one stopped to apologize for its condition.
At the hospital, we met with a doctor who had been working the night of (and the weeks following) the explosion at Chernobyl. She explained that the Soviet government told hospital staff nothing about the accident and simply instructed them to clear the hospital of existing patients, never warning that their new patients would be brought in via contaminated vehicles, wearing contaminated clothes, and be contaminated themselves with the radioactive elements.
She also told us about trying to get access to a supply of potassium iodide pills in the first days after the accident, thinking that it might help her patients who had been exposed to high concentrations of radioactive iodine-131. Her request was met with a firm warning to return to work and stop arousing suspicion.
She recounted the sad tale of a nurse who had personally carried the liquidators in her arms after they were brought in, and then discovered that the liquidators were highly radioactive themselves. She later developed cancer in several places across her upper body, including breast cancer, which eventually took her life.
The health of people in heavily contaminated areas was, and continues to be, a problem. At the same hospital, we talked to two patients, both elderly women, who had lived near the power plant when the disaster happened and have experienced a myriad of health problems since. When the 30-km "Exclusion Zone" was created after the meltdown, they were forced to relocate.
They told us they receive a mere 150 hryvna (about $20) a month from the Ukrainian government now to pay for food, medicine and the means to live. We asked the first patient if she was angry about her situation.
"Of course I'm angry...I need an apartment, I have to pay for an apartment," she said. "I have to buy some food. I need clothes, but I don't have the means."
Both these patients, as well as some doctors that we met, call the meager allotment the victims receive "coffin money" -- meaning it is only enough to pay for their burial.
Another such story involved Dr. Yuri Bandazheuski, who we met with on a snowy day at the hospital in Ivankiv. He was an outgoing but serious man with a cordial demeanor. A pathologist from Belarus, Bandazheuski has studied the levels of Cesium-137 in the organs of children living in contamination areas in the fallout region. His research showed a direct relationship between elevated concentrations of cesium and heart disease.
In 2004, the Swiss Medical Weekly published his findings, which showed that cardiovascular problems among children living in areas with high concentrations of radioactivity in the food source (specifically dairy and meat) were "significantly more frequent" than those that lived in areas of Belarus where concentrations of cesium were considered moderate or low. In fact, more than 80 percent of the children who had high concentrations of cesium in their systems were shown to have cardiac problems, compared to only 19 percent of children with low levels of cesium.
Bandezheuski's data is inconsistent with the findings of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), and the International Agency for Atomic Energy (IAEA), the organizations who published the Chernobyl Forum Report in 2005. Their report stated that "there is no clearly demonstrated increase in the incidence of solid cancers or leukemia due to radiation in the most affected populations."
In 2011, UNSCEAR reported to the U.N. that because countermeasures had been taken early on to decrease the amounts of radiocesium, "the resulting radiation doses were relatively low...and should not lead to substantial health effects in the general population that could be attributed to radiation exposure from the accident."
After publishing his results, Bandazheuski was asked -- and then told -- to retract his work by authorities in his native Belarus, he told us. He repeatedly refused to withdraw his findings, and became more vocal about the impact Chernobyl's fallout had in his homeland. In 2001, the Belarussian government formally accused Bandazheuski of bribery -- which he insists is untrue -- and though that charge was never proven, he was sentenced to eight years in prison. Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience, and after four years in jail, Bandazheuski was released. Upon his release, he redoubled his efforts to help those suffering Chernobyl's long-term health effects.
His story remains largely untold.
Meanwhile, reports from agencies like UNSCEAR still insist that ongoing health effects from Chernobyl are minor and that radiation doesn't make people sick. In their 2011 report to the United Nations, the agency stated, "Lives have been disrupted by the Chernobyl accident, but from the radiological point of view, generally positive prospects for the future health of most individuals involved should prevail."
Today, Bandazheuski continues his work in the Ukraine. He says the political climate in his home country of Belarus makes it impossible for him to work there. He is frustrated that so little data exists on the effects of radiation exposure from Chernobyl on the people in the fallout regions.
"I'm not saying this as a person who has been dealing in particular with radiology or who wants to say something bad about nuclear energy," he said. "I approached this problem as a medical doctor. I can only say that radiation is extremely dangerous for human life."