Children of Chernobyl

The nightmare is not over yet

Published: Thursday 31 December 1998

over the past. a Chernobyl vic (Credit: At / Pti)RADIATION -INDUCED conditions and tumours; other than thyroid cancer have increased significantly in the former Soviet republic of Belarus since the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in 1986, say researchers.

Many experts claim that the only significant health effect of the accident was to increase the number of people contracting thyroid cancer by a factor of over 200.There have been more than 900 reported cases since 1990 in the region most affected by the Chernobyl fallout, a large chunk of which is Belarus. Chernobyl, in Ukraine, is less than 20 km from Belarus's border.

An international conference on Chernobyl sponsored by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and others, held in Vienna in 1996, concluded that there was Chewing "no consistent, attributable increase... either in the rate of leukaemia or in the incidence of any malignancies other than thyroid carcinomas". This declaration deprived Belarus of much of the international aid it had hoped for.

However, Rose Goncharova of the Institute of Genetics and Cytology at the Academy of Science in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, has re-analysed data collected in 1996 for a national genetic monitoring programme. She found that since 1985, the number of reported cases of congenital malformations in children, such as cleft palate, Down's syndrome and deformation of limbs and organs, has increased by a phenomenal 83 per cent in areas heavily contaminated by the Chernobyl fallout. In mildly contaminated regions, such cases have gone up by 30 per cent and by 24 per cent in the so-called 'clean' areas. All these congenital conditions have been associated with radiation damage in past research. Goncharova discounts another possible cause, toxic chemicals, since pollution has fallen significantly in the past decade (New Scientist, Vol 160, No 2155).

Goncharova's research is the first to quantify what local researchers have believed for many years now. A conference in Minsk in March this year challenged the conclusion of the 1996 Vienna meet, claiming that the Chernobyl disaster had caused many malignant tumours, developmental malformations and many other longterm consequences. "The existence of a serious radiation risk... should be admitted." At the Vienna conference itself, researchers from the Centre for Medical Technology in Belarus presented a study indicating an increase in the incidence of a wide range of tumours among the population of Gomel, the most contaminated area in Belarus.

Elisabeth Cardis from the Paris-based International Agency for Research on Cancer, who presided over the session on long-term health effects at Vienna, is sceptical of Goncharova's conclusions "it si likely that generation of abnormalities has been improving in recent years, which could have led to the observed increases."

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