Publication Laka-library:
Chernobyl 20 years on; Health Effects of the Chernobyl accident

AuthorECRR, C.Busby, A.Yablokov
DateApril 2006

From the publication:


One of the first sub-committees formed by the European Committee on Radiation
Risk (ECRR) was the Chernobyl sub-Committee. Its remit was to examine the
epidemiological and other evidence on the health effects of low dose radiation
exposure which could be obtained from careful study of populations living in areas
contaminated by the Chernobyl accident. The ECRR had been founded on the basis
that many scientists had criticised the external acute exposure foundations of the
current radiation risk model (employed by all countries for radiation protection
purposes), the model, essentially, of the International Commission on Radiological
Protection (ICRP). This model, it was argued, was scientifically invalid for internal
chronic irradiation from fission product isotopes and radioactive microscopic
          It seemed to the committee that the Chernobyl catastrophe represented a
unique opportunity or natural laboratory to examine the health effects of such low-
dose internal exposures. Knowledge obtained from such studies would be valuable
in developing an accurate understanding of the effects of radiation, and also in
interpreting the many reports of apparent associations between cancer, leukaemia
or other ill health and prior exposures to internal radionuclides e.g. from weapons
test fallout, and nuclear site discharges. Indeed, the question of the adequacy of the
ICRP external risk model had been called into question for many years by a
number of independent scientists and, with the rapid developments of radiation
biology in the 1990s following the discovery of ‘genomic instability’, by the early
2000s calls were increasingly being made to re-examine the issue. In 2001,
following much anecdotal evidence of increases in ill health in the Chernobyl
affected territories of the ex-Soviet Union, and also reports of increases in infant
leukaemia in European countries in the children who were in the womb over the
period of the internal exposures, the European Parliament called for the re-
examination of these models specifically in connection with the effects of the
Chernobyl accident.
          Also in 2001, in the UK, a new committee was set up under the joint
direction of the Department of the Environment and the Department of Health. The
remit of this Committee Examining Radiation Risk from Internal Emitters
(CERRIE) was to examine just these issues. In 2003 CERRIE organised an
international workshop in Oxford and most of the major radiation risk experts in
the world were invited to attend to discuss the issues and comment on the draft
reports. Most did so. Among those who came were the eminent scientists
Professors Alexey Yablokov, Elena Burlakova and Inge Schmitz Feuerhake. The
Russian scientists drew attention to the many studies reported in the Russian
language literature. These research papers on the Chernobyl effects were not being
translated into English by the UN agencies, nor by the World Health Organisation
(WHO). For this reason (they said) the terrible effects of low dose radiation in the
Chernobyl affected territories were being ignored or glossed over. Surely CERRIE
should attempt to examine the truly enormous amount of useful information that
these Russian language reports represented? In the event, the CERRIE secretariat
did nothing and the CERRIE committee ended in 2004 split on the issue of internal
radiation with two reports being published in late 2004. Only the Minority
CERRIE report reviewed some fifty of the main Russian studies and drew attention
to the serious cancer and non-cancer effects following Chernobyl reported in the
Russian journals.
         It is now the 20th anniversary of the accident and in the West nothing has
changed. It as if none of these events ever occurred. Children continue to die of
cancer near nuclear polluted sites, which still continue to release fission-product
radioisotopes under licenses based on the IRCP model. Court cases are still lost by
the enraged and desperate parents because judges still believe that the doses to the
children were too low. Scientists on government committees still talk about
‘absorbed dose’ as if it were a meaningful concept for internal irradiation. The
Emperor still wears his new clothes.
         The evidence from the Chernobyl affected territories, presented here in
these chapters, reveals the real-world consequences of a simple and terrible new
discovery: that the effects of low dose internal irradiation cause subtle changes in
the genome that result in an increase in the general mutation rate. This genomic
instability was first seen in cells in the laboratory. The Chernobyl evidence,
presented here, shows that this seems to be true for all species, for plants and
animals and humans. It has profound implications that go beyond radiation
protection and risk models. In the review paper by Krysanov in this collection we
find that mice living in the high irradiation zone, 22 generations after the initial
exposure, are more radiosensitive than mice living in lower exposure areas. The
same effect is reported for plants by Grodzhinsky who wryly points out that plants
cannot exhibit the ‘radiophobia’ that many of the Chernobyl effects have been
blamed on. This flies in the face of current ideas about genetic selection.
         The effects of genomic instability are apparent in the evidence of massive
harm to the organs and systems of living creatures at low doses of internal
exposure, resulting in a kind of radiation ageing associated with random mutations
in all cells. At the higher doses in the ‘liquidators’, after some years, their bodies
seem to simply fall apart. In an astonishing statement we hear from Yablokov that
in Moscow 100% of the liquidators are sick, in Leningrad 85%. These are men that
ran like hares into the radiation fields with improvised lead waistcoats cut from
roofs and who, by stabilising the situation at the reactor, saved Europe from a
nuclear explosion equivalent to 50 Hiroshima Bombs - an outcome that would have
made most of it uninhabitable. They are forgotten.
          Whole biological systems collapse; at the cell level, at the tissue level and
at the population level. Burlakova and Nazarov describe these subtle effects at
lower doses of internal irradiation in laboratory cell systems and also people,
Grodzhinsky shows the effects in plants, - higher for internal exposures than
external, Krysanov shows the effects in wild animals and Yablokov and the
Nesterenkos in the children and adults living and continuing to live in the
contaminated territories. The effects clearly operate at what are presently thought
to be vanishingly low doses. The increases in infant leukaemia in several countries
in Europe flag up the extreme dissonance between the IRCP model and the true
effects. This finding has been ignored by the WHO. The papers are not referenced
in UNSCEAR or in the recent US BEIR VII report. The comparison between the
expected and observed cases of infant leukaemia gives a clear indication of an error
of upwards of 150-fold in the current model’s prediction. This is shocking. It
means that the previous releases to the environment from accidents, from weapons
tests or under licence have killed and will still kill millions. The effects of the
1960s atmospheric weapons tests are with us and our children forever and are
clearly responsible for many of the current illnesses.
         It is a scandal that UN agencies charged with protecting the public - e.g.
the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation
(UNSCEAR) or the World Health Organisation (WHO) - can ignore the huge
amount of evidence from the Chernobyl accident that shows these effects. This
evidence has been presented to them again and again. Yet in the WHO conference
on Chernobyl in Kiev in 2001 the representative of UNSCEAR, Norman Gentner
stated clearly:
 The risk of leukaemia doesn’t appear to be elevated even among the recovery
workers. No scientific evidence for increases in cancer incidence or other non-
malignant disorders that could be related to the accident.
         Science moves forward through experiment and through observation. The
radiation risk model presently used to underpin legal constraints on public
exposure is based mainly on the theory that the external acute radiation effects in
the Japanese A-Bomb survivors can be used to predict and explain effects from
exposure to internal novel fission-products that never existed on earth for the whole
of evolution. The Chernobyl accident and its appalling outcomes have given the
human race the empirical evidence to test this theory. The observations made or
reviewed in these extraordinary chapters - many written by eminent scientists-
makes it fundamentally clear that the present radiation risk model is flawed.
         The ECRR sub-committee on Chernobyl has worked hard under difficult
conditions to assemble the contributions from these eminent scientists and to put
them into reasonable English. This book represents a landmark on the road to
understanding the effects of low-dose chronic irradiation. The committee believe
that these lessons should be borne in mind by policy makers who are, even now,
discussing new investments in nuclear energy and ways in which historic and
future radionuclide waste can be disposed of into the environment. The committee
recommends this book to scientists and policymakers and concerned members of
the public in the hope that the huge amount of work carried out by scientists
publishing their results in Russian language journals and others studying the effects
of the Chernobyl accident will influence their decisions in this important area of
public health.
         The Committee thanks Greta Bengtsson, Mireille de Messieres and Saoirse
Morgan for their hard work in the preparation of this book.
Chris Busby, Scientific Secretary, ECRR