March 18, 2011

The most dangerous fallout at Chernobyl was fear

Just how bad was Chernobyl anyway?  Real Clear Science puts Chernobyl in Perspective.

In 2006, 20 years after the accident, a group of eight UN agencies, including the International Atomic Energy Agency and the World Health Organization, assessed the damage in a study incorporating the work of hundreds of scientists and health experts from around the world.

It turns out that two decades after the fact, the death toll had not reached the tens of thousands that were predicted.  In fact,
fewer than 50 deaths could be directly attributable to radiation from the disaster, almost all of them among rescue workers who had been exposed to massive amounts of radiation on the disaster site at the time of the fire and its immediate aftermath.  In addition, nine children in the area died of thyroid cancer that is thought to have been caused by radioactive contamination, but even among the nearby population, there was neither evidence of decreased fertility nor of congenital malformations that could be attributed to radiation exposure.

It is worth putting even the UN’s low casualty figures in perspective. As the report notes, over 1,000 onsite reactor staff and emergency workers received heavy exposure to high levels of radiation on the first day of the accident, and some 200,000 workers were exposed in recovery operations from 1986-1987.  But only 50 had died of cancer 20 years later.

Exposed children are more at risk from thyroid cancer, but the recovery rate – even in the Soviet Ukraine – was 99 percent. The health experts could find no evidence of increased rates of leukemia or other cancers among the affected residents.

The largest public health problem created by the accident the UN study concludes  was the crippling “mental health impact” caused by widespread misinformation

In other words, the most dangerous fallout from the accident was fear.

Posted by Jill Fallon at March 18, 2011 8:39 AM | Permalink