Chernobyl area doctors and researchers contradict predicted UN mortality figures as being far too low years after disaster

Abandoned house in Chernobyl
Igor Kudrik

Publish date: January 10, 2010

Written by: Charles Digges

NEW YORK – Doctors at the Children's Cancer Hospital in Minsk, Belarus and at the Vilne Hospital for Radiological Protection in Eastern Ukraine are telling international media that they are seeing what they have no doubt is a spike in cancer rates, mutations and blood diseases among their patients linked to the world’s largest nuclear disaster at Chernobyl 24 years.

If the reports of the local doctors and researchers, many of who spoke to Bellona Web Monday and in interviews last week, prove to be true, they could stand over two decades’ worth of research by the United Nations and affiliated organisations on its head, and cast a shadow over the research techniques that have thus far been employed.

The local data clash with figures release by the UN’s World Health Organisation and the International Atomic Energy Agency, Those agencies have fixed the number of victims of the blast and fallout that occurred when Chernobyl’s No. 4 reactor experienced a melt-down in 1986 and exploded at 56.

Local doctors confound UN reports

But the local doctors tell reporters that proving that an increase in infant mortality rates of 20-30 percent in 20 years, or that many young people suffering from genetic disorders, internal organ deformities and thyroid cancers are victims for the radioactive fallout from the disaster spread over several countries is impossible.  

In calls by Bellona Web to the WHO and the IAEA, spokesmen there reiterated that only 56 died in the initial blast at reactor No.4 and that only about 4,000 people would eventually die from eventual radiation exposure.

One spokesman for the IAEA, who declined to be identified, said that only a few children have died of cancer in the wake of the wake of the accident, and most of the illnesses usually linked to Chernobyl are due to “psychological distress, ‘radiophobia’ or poverty and unhealthy lifestyle habits,” he said.

IAEA: It’s all in your head

Radiophobia is a fear of ionizing radiation, most usually used to describe fear of x-rays, as defined by the US compiled Diagnostics and Statistics Manual (DSM) of mental disorders. The term is also used to describe a general opposition to nuclear power use.

When asked how it was that such young children could be cognisant enough of ionizing radiation to develop psychosomatic physical symptoms to the point of death and lengthy hospitalisation, the spokesman replied that he was not a medical expert and that he had no further comment.

In 2006, an IAEA spokesman, also speaking anonymously, said he was confident the WHO figures  of 56 immediate deaths and 4,000 eventual deaths were correct, the Guardian reported. And Michael Repacholi, director of the UN Chernobyl forum until 2006, has claimed that even 4,000 eventual deaths could be too high. The main negative health impacts of Chernobyl were not caused by the radiation but by the fear of it, he claimed.

That same year, German Green Member of European Parliament, Rebecca Harms, called for the IAEA to be removed on grounds of bias from contributing scientific data regarding Chernobyl.

“(The IAEA) are not independent. They are working in favour of or close to the nuclear industry. Their job has been from the very beginning to spread nuclear power all around the world,” said HArms at an NGO conference in Kiev.

“So they are in favour of nuclear power, and that has strange results: They have presented falsifications to the World Health Organisation’ s studies concerning Chernobyl’s consequences,” Harms said.

Controversy rages over the agendas of the IAEA, which has promoted civil nuclear power over the past 30 years, and the WHO. The UN accepts only peer-reviewed scientific studies written in certain journals in English, a rule said to exclude dozens of other studies.

Over the weekend, Linda Walker, of the UK Chernobyl Children’s Project, which funds Belarus and Ukraine orphanages and holidays for affected children, called in the paper for a determined effort to learn about the effects of the disaster.

“Parents are giving birth to babies with disabilities or genetic disorders … but, as far as we know, no research is being conducted,” she said.

A 2007 study by Stockholm University and New York’s Columbia University found that Swedish children born in the months following the 1986 Chernobyl disaster suffered mental impairment from the radioactive fallout.

In 2008, Russia’s official state news Channel One reported a huge jump in the number of thyroid cancer rates being reported by Russian doctors. The broadcast, Channel One’s television show “Health,” told Russians between the ages of 20 and 40 to immediately schedule thyroid exams with their doctors.

Other reports higher than UN, but who is right?

While poverty and low standards of living in eastern Ukraine, where Chernobyl is located, and Belarus, which bore the brunt of Chernobyl’s impact, are certainly contributing factors to general poor health in the region, doctors who spoke with Bellona Web said, scientists studying the most contaminated areas of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine are not convinced of the IAEA and WHO’s figures, said Oksana Kostikova of the Children’s Cancer Hospital in Minsk in a telephone interview.

“These figures cited by the WHO and the IAEA don’t even match with figures other UN organisations are predicting in terms of cancer deaths,” she said, noting that the UN’s International Agency for Research on Cancer predict four times as many deaths for a total of 16,000 deaths from Chernobyl.
“This is a more accurate assessment of what we see daily, but it is still on the low side,” said Kostikova.

Indeed, the Guardian, quoting an assessment by the Russian Academy of Sciences, said there had been 60,000 deaths in Russia alone related to the Chernobyl disaster over the last nearly decade and a half, and 140,000 in Ukraine and Belarus.

The Belarusian National Academy of Sciences estimates that the country has suffered 93,000 and 270,000 cases of cancer so far, said Valentina Pakhomchik, secretary of the academy’s ecological commission, by telephone.

The Guardian reported that the Ukrainian National Commission for Radiation Protection estimated 500,000 deaths as a result of the accident, though that could not be independently verified by commission members, but was supported in a telephone interview with Leonid Ilyin of the State Research Centre of Russia’s Institute of Biophysics.

The mismatches in figures arise because there have been no comprehensive, co-ordinated studies of the health consequences of the accident said both Ilyin and Kostikova.

By contrast, in Nagasaki and Hiroshima official research showed that the main rise in most types of cancer and non-cancer diseases only became apparent years after the US nuclear bombs were dropped on those cities.

With Chernobyl there have been difficulties in gathering reliable data from areas left in administrative chaos after the accident. Hundreds of thousands of people were moved away from the affected areas, and the collapse of the Soviet Union led to records being lost.