[ RadSafe ] few reassured over chernoby;'s i,pact - AP news story
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Sun Apr 16 14:11:21 CDT 2006
Few reassured over Chernobyl's impact
By MARA D. BELLABY, Associated Press Writer
(Published: April 15, 2006)
KIEV, Ukraine (AP) - With every cough and sore throat, every ache and pain,
Valentyna Stanyuk feels Chernobyl stalking her.
"It's only a matter of time," she said as she waited for a thyroid test at a
mobile Red Cross clinic in her village of Bystrichy, 150 miles west of
The tests came back clean, but that's little reassurance to this 54-year-old
or to millions of others who live in parts of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia
that were heavily irradiated when the nuclear reactor exploded 20 years ago,
spewing radioactive clouds over Ukraine and much of Europe for 10 days.
The April 26, 1986, disaster forced the evacuation of large swaths of some
of the Soviet Union's best farmland and forests. The radiation spread far
enough to be detected in reindeer meat in Norway and rainfall in the U.S.
Pacific Northwest. It shocked most European countries into a generation-long
freeze on building nuclear plants. In so starkly exposing the failings of
the communist system, the world's worst nuclear accident may even have
hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later.
And the effect on the health of the people exposed to its invisible poisons?
That is the most heatedly debated legacy of Chernobyl.
"There is so much that we still don't know," said Dr. Volodymyr Sert, head
of a team of Red Cross doctors who canvass Ukraine's rural Zhytomyr region
in search of thyroid abnormalities - one of the few health problems that all
scientists agree is linked to Chernobyl's fallout.
"The most important thing we can do is reassure people that they aren't
being forgotten," he said.
After the explosion about 116,000 residents were evacuated from a 20-mile
zone around the plant. Some 5 million others in areas that got significant
fallout were not evacuated.
Over the years, reports and rumors have spoken of thousands of these
especially vulnerable people dying from radiation. But a September report by
a group of United Nations agencies concluded that the accident wasn't nearly
as deadly as feared.
Fewer than 50 deaths have been directly linked to radiation exposure as of
mid-2005, the report said. A total of 4,000 of the 600,000 "liquidators" -
workers who were hastily mobilized to clean up the accident site - are
likely to die from radiation-related cancers and leukemia, it predicted.
That's far below the tens of thousands many claimed were fatally stricken.
The researchers found that thyroid cancer rates have skyrocketed among
people who were under 18 at the time of the accident, but noted more than 99
percent survive after treatment.
It said there was no convincing evidence of birth defects or reduced
fertility, and most of the general population suffered such low radiation
doses that the scientists decided not to make predictions about deaths,
except to say that some increase - less than 1 percent or about 5,000 -
might be expected.
Venyamin Khudolei, director of the Center for Independent Ecological
Expertise at the government-founded Russian Academy of Science, disagrees
with the findings.
In the part of Russia most heavily hit by the fallout, mortality rates have
risen nearly 4 percent since the explosion, indicating the Chernobyl toll in
Russia alone could be calculated at 67,000 people, he said. His findings are
cited by the environmental watchdog group Greenpeace, which on Tuesday
(April 18) is to issue a report on Chernobyl's consequences.
A spokesman for Greenpeace International's main office in Amsterdam, Omer
ElNaiem, said the report will use data from various sources, some hitherto
unpublished, which "will indicate a rise" over the U.N. report's casualty
Other experts point to studies which show increases in everything from
schizophrenia among the traumatized liquidators to breast cancer.
The U.N. report suggested that people in heavily affected areas were gripped
by "paralyzing fatalism" that induced them to see themselves as victims and
blame Chernobyl for every ailment, even those caused by smoking or drinking.
That outraged Ukrainian officials.
"I am speechless that we can allow this blasphemy in front of the graves of
those who died," said lawmaker Borys Oliynyk.
Researchers trying to determine death tolls - and predict deaths still to
come - don't have an easy task. Soviet-era attempts to cover up the chaotic
and often inhumane response made it difficult to track down victims. Lists
were incomplete, and Soviet authorities later forbade doctors to cite
"radiation" on death certificates.
The rural regions affected are impoverished and unemployment is high.
Alcohol abuse is rampant, diets poor. It's hard to distinguish
Chernobyl-related health problems from a more general post-Soviet malaise,
"I'm sure we'll see claims of thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of
thousands, millions of deaths, but again we checked, we checked all the
research, all the files," Didier Louvat, a radiation waste expert with the
International Atomic Energy Agency, said by telephone from Vienna.
"The explosion was very concentrated around the facility and the fallout was
spread in great plumes that went high into the atmosphere and crossed
Europe, diffusing the concentration ... It could have been much worse."
About 1,000 people - plant personnel, military conscripts, firefighters from
the Kiev region, emergency workers - bore the brunt of the inferno, and 134
were officially confirmed as suffering from acute radiation syndrome.
One person died during the explosion and his body has never been recovered.
The U.N. report says that another 28 died from radiation sickness in 1986,
and 19 of those suffering from radiation syndrome died between 1987-2004 but
not all the deaths were necessarily caused by radiation. The rest remain
Wearing no masks or protective suits, dozens of firefighters were deployed.
While the bosses sheltered underground, plant workers recall, people stood
around awaiting instructions, breathing poisoned air as they watched smoke
burst from the reactor's exposed core.
The disregard for human life persisted. Natalya Lopatyuk, the widow of a
plant worker, said that as she was being evacuated, she saw groups of young
conscripts sunbathing while waiting for orders.
Radiation burns "tear at the skin and look something like a volcano erupting
on the body," said Oleksandr Zelentsov, head of the Kiev-based International
Organization for People with Radiation Disease. The victims' bodies were
considered so radioactive that family members were told not to touch them
and they were buried in double-layered lead coffins.
Such high radiation doses, however, were short-lived. The last people
diagnosed with acute radiation syndrome - three firefighters extinguishing a
cable fire - fell ill at the end May 1986, Zelentsov said. One is dead, one
suffered a heart attack and is in serious condition and the third is
healthy, Zelentsov said.
The Chernobyl plant now is a cracked hulk in the eerie "dead zone." The last
of its four reactors was taken out of service in 2000 and the main activity
is to shore up the concrete-and-steel "sarcophagus" that covers the
But radiation infects a vast stretch of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia - in the
soil, in the berries and mushrooms, in the firewood needed to heat homes.
Oleksandr Nabok, 21, has never been near the nuclear station, some 60 miles
from his village, but he was recently diagnosed with thyroid cancer. "I
never thought about Chernobyl until I got this news," he said in a Kiev
hospital as he awaited surgery.
He is one of more than 5 million people who live in areas deemed
contaminated but habitable, far removed from the villages circling the plant
that were considered so irradiated that they were bulldozed under grave-like
mounds of dirt. There, isotopes with half-lives of 24,390 years came to
In Nabok's village, experts say, the biggest concern was radioactive iodine.
People suffer from a lack of iodine in this region, so when the radioactive
iodine was released, their thyroids gobbled it up; children's thyroid glands
work most actively, putting them at greatest risk. Many ingested the iodine
in milk from cows that had grazed on radiated fields.
Accounts vary, but experts agree that between 4,000 and 5,000 people,
children when the explosion happened, have been diagnosed with thyroid
cancer in Ukraine and Belarus - making it the single biggest
Chernobyl-related medical problem. At least nine have died. Before the
accident, the illness was so rare that in most years only about 10 children
were diagnosed with it.
The numbers keep growing. The main spurt was expected to come around this
time, but no one knows whether this is the beginning of the peak or its end.
"We cannot tell a patient that after a certain time, cancer will not
appear," said Halyna Terehova, an endocrinologist with the Kiev Institute of
The U.N. report found that the high anxiety levels persist and even appear
to be growing among people such as Stanyuk who live in zones affected by
contamination. "It is scary, you try not to worry about it," said Valentyna
Yanduk, whose face brightened into a smile after the Red Cross doctors gave
her 12-year-old son Ihor's thyroid the all-clear. Technically he's not
considered part of the risk group - he wasn't even born at the time of the
explosion - but his mother worries.
"For 20 years, these people have been living as victims instead of
survivors," Louvat, the IAEA radiation expert, said. "We need to be telling
them: 'Look, you survived this.'"
Associated Press correspondent Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this
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