Two decades after Chernobyl, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the United Nations (UN) Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation stated that “fewer than 50 deaths had been directly attributed to radiation from the disaster, almost all being highly exposed rescue workers,” because radiation levels were considered too low to have caused any detectable harm. This conclusion was based on data derived from the atomic bomb survivors life-span study, a program that began in 1950 to document the long-term health effects of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Russian, Ukrainian, and Belorussian scientists vehemently disputed this assessment, estimating Chernobyl-linked fatalities in the hundreds of thousands. The UN agencies later recognized a broader spectrum of Chernobyl-related health effects, yet the idea that there were no long-term consequences to human health proved hard to dislodge. The UN-WHO-IAEA assessment was repeated in many venues and was cited by journalists as a scientific consensus. After the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011, residents in the affected region were told by experts from many of the same international institutions that there would be no direct long-term health effects because their radiation exposure was low. Because there was no post-Chernobyl equivalent to the atomic bomb survivors life-span study, the argument went, the data on the Japanese survivors remained the gold standard of international nuclear regulations. The notion that no such data existed, however, was not entirely true. Kate Brown’s meticulously researched Manual for Survival is the first environmental and medical history that recovers decades-long efforts of scientists and doctors in Ukraine and Belarus to document the long-term health impacts from the Chernobyl meltdown. Unlike the Japanese atomic bomb survivors life-span study, which began 5 years after the exposure, Soviet doctors worked in contaminated areas right after the Chernobyl accident—many of these areas populated by people who didn’t know that they were exposed to radiation. Over the years, Soviet scientists amassed vast evidence of a broad range of debilitating health effects from low-level radiation, including cancers; anemia; gastrointestinal problems; and severe disorders of the liver, kidneys, thyroid, and other organs. The individuals who collected these data risked their careers and lives, enduring harassment from regional politicians and Soviet secret police and accumulating radioactive isotopes in their own bodies.
Science 6th March 2019 read more »