The health situation Main

The nature of the biological effects which can be caused by ionizing radiation and a necessarily brief account of human health effects are outlined later in this brochure. That account is confined to direct physical effects. However, in the case of Chernobyl, as in many other radiological incidents, psychological effects have predominated.

The nature of these effects is complicated and it is wrong to dismiss them as irrational or to label them as "radiophobia". Many factors contribute to the development of this widespread public response. Among other things, there may be the historical association with nuclear bombs, or a lack of openness in the past on the part of governments, or the absence of intelligible explanations by scientists. It is noteworthy that some negative psychological responses were found in the populations of both "contaminated" and "uncontaminated" settlements studied by the project. Such effects are real and understandable, particularly in a mainly rural population whose work and recreation are closely interwoven with the land where restrictions may have had to be imposed by the authorities. Even physicians and others who might be looked to for guidance have often been confused. The result is that rumors multiply, fears increase, and any health problem is quickly attributed to a nuclear cause. Uncorroborated narratives may become commonly held wisdom and unverifiable statistical data may be accepted with insufficient scrutiny.

To address these problems, the international project set about reviewing the health situation reported by key medical centres and institutes in the Soviet Union. Subsequently, seven representative settlements of high contamination were selected for detailed independent health examination by the project medical teams. Six control settlements with the same socio-economic structure, but with insignificant contamination, were similarly examined.

Settlements Surveyed
"Contaminated" ''Uncontaminated''
}Belarus Khodosy
}Russia Surazh
}Ukraine Chemer

The individuals to be examined were selected according to a statistical sampling scheme giving a representative distribution of age groups. As many as 250 people were examined in each settlement. The examination focused on disorders that had been reported or that might be expected. In addition to direct clinical examination, samples were taken and sent to the USA and Japan for laboratory analysis.

In any detailed clinical study of a particular population, some health disorders are bound to be detected due to the better documentation and closer scrutiny such a detailed study entails. This makes careful comparison with a similar population outside the contaminated area even more critical and rules out reference to pre-existing national or regional statistics.

Results of the health study

While the data were not detailed enough to exclude the possibility of an increase in some tumor types, it is emphasised that, on the basis of the doses estimated by the project and using internationally accepted risk estimates, future increases over the natural incidence of all cancers or hereditary effects would be difficult to discern, even with well designed long-term epidemiological studies. There remains a possibility of a statistically detectable increase in the incidence of thyroid tumors at a later date. Some general recommendations in the field of preventive medicine and for further investigations were also made by the project team.