Japan nuclear crisis may have a silver lining for radiation health research

No one is happy that the Fukushima Daiichi power plant is still releasing dangerous levels of radioactive particles more than two weeks after a magnitude 9 earthquake and the resulting tsunami knocked out the crucial cooling systems that maintain the nuclear fuel at safe temperatures.

But all clouds have a silver lining, as the saying goes. And in this case, that silver lining might be a renewed focus on the long-term health effects of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

The explosion of Chernobyl’s No. 4 reactor spread 6.7 tons of radioactive material across more than 77,000 square miles of Europe. It has been well documented that three workers died from the explosion, 28 succumbed to acute radiation poisoning over the next four months, and 19 others died of other causes in the quarter century since the accident. In addition, thousands of children who drank radioactive milk were subsequently diagnosed with thyroid cancer, including 15 who died of the disease.

But the extent of other long-term health problems suffered by those exposed to radiation from the accident – including roughly 3,500 people who still work at the site – are largely unknown. That’s because money isn’t available to study these people the way Japanese A-bomb survivors have been tracked since 1945 by the Radiation Effects Research Foundation, according to an article published online this week by Nature.


For instance, the National Cancer Institute – part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health – has been following a cohort of 25,000 people who were children in the Ukraine and Belarus at the time of the Chernobyl accident. That effort has revealed that those who got more radiation and those who were deficient in iodine had a higher risk of thyroid cancer, but the ongoing monitoring ended in 2008 due to a lack of funds, Nature reports.

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The European Commission has been funding a group of scientists to develop a wish list of Chernobyl-related studies. Suggestions include studying the 500,000 or so “liquidators” who did clean-up and monitoring work around the nuclear plant soon after the accident. The radiation exposure among this group varies widely, so a study would have the potential to map out how health risks like cataracts and leukemia are linked with specific doses of radiation.

It would also be useful to track the children of these liquidators. But that these and other studies would cost upwards of $4 million, and it’s not at all clear where those funds would come from.

Without hard data on health risks, many exposed people have simply assumed the worst, according to Nature. “Some think they are doomed because of their radiation exposure,” a Spanish radiation epidemiologist is quoted as saying. One consequence is high rates of smoking and alcohol abuse that have actually caused more health problems than the radiation itself.

Some researchers are optimistic that the problems in Fukushima will prompt governments to pony up the funds needed to carry out these and other studies.

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