Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

The Chernobyl Accident 20 Years On: An Assessment of the Health Consequences and the International Response

Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

The Chernobyl Accident 20 Years On: An Assessment of the Health Consequences and the International Response

Article excerpt

BACKGROUND: The Chernobyl accident in 1986 caused widespread radioactive contamination and enormous concern. Twenty years later, the World Health Organization and the International Atomic Energy Authority issued a generally reassuring statement about the consequences. Accurate assessment of the consequences is important to the current debate on nuclear power.

OBJECTIVES: Our objectives in this study were to evaluate the health impact of the Chernobyl accident, assess the international response to the accident, and consider how to improve responses to future accidents.

DISCUSSION: So far, radiation to the thyroid from radioisotopes of iodine has caused several thousand cases of thyroid cancer but very few deaths; exposed children were most susceptible. The focus on thyroid cancer has diverted attention from possible nonthyroid effects, such as mini-satellite instability, which is potentially important. The international response to the accident was inadequate and uncoordinated, and has been unjustifiably reassuring. Accurate assessment of Chernobyl's future health effects is not currently possible in the light of dose uncertainties, current debates over radiation actions, and the lessons from the late consequences of atomic bomb exposure.

CONCLUSIONS: Because of the uncertainties over the dose from and the consequences of the Chernobyl accident, it is essential that investigations of its effects should be broadened and supported for the long term. Because of the problems with the international response to Chernobyl, the United Nations should initiate an independent review of the actions and assignments of the agencies concerned, with recommendations for dealing with future international-scale accidents. These should involve independent scientists and ensure cooperation rather than rivalry.

KEY WORDS: Chernobyl, disaster response, nuclear accidents, radiation, thyroid cancer, United Nations. Environ Health Perspect 114:1312-1317 (2006). doi:10.1289/ehp.9113 available via[Online 30 May 2006]


April 26, 2006, was the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident, the second major single exposure to radiation of a substantial population. It is relevant to the current view of the consequences of Chernobyl to reflect on the understanding in 1965 of the health consequences of the first major event, radiation from the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945. The only significant consequences observed in survivors 20 years after the atomic bombs were increases in leukemia and thyroid cancer, and the general view of the future was reassuring. In 1974, a significant increase in solid cancers was detected, and nearly 50 years after the event, an unexpected increase was found in noncancer diseases (Shimizu et al. 1992). Today, leukemia and thyroid cancer form only a small fraction of the accepted total radiation-related health detriment.

In 1990, four years after the Chernobyl accident, an increase in thyroid cancer was found in children exposed to fallout from the accident [International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) 1991]. Two years later, the first reports in the Western literature of an increase in childhood thyroid cancer (CTC) in Belarus were published (Baverstock et al. 1992; Kazakov et al. 1992). In 2000, about 2,000 cases of thyroid cancer had been reported in those exposed as children in the former Soviet Socialist Union, and in 2005, the number was estimated at 4,000 [World Health Organization (WHO) 2005a]; the latest estimate for the year 2056 ranges from 3,400 to 72,000 (Cardis et al. 2006). The effects are not limited by national borders; Poland has recorded cases (Niedziela et al. 2004) in spite of a rapid precautionary distribution of stable iodine (Nauman and Wolff 1993). The causative agent, [.sup.131.I], was detected in many European countries with as yet unknown effects. Interestingly, a significant increase in leukemia has not been reliably reported in the three most affected countries. …

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