Don’t Trust The IAEA On Chornobyl

KIEV, Ukraine -- The Kyiv Post’s recent article about author Mary Mycio (“U.S. author pens ‘natural history’ of Chornobyl,” Dec. 1) and her op-ed column about the Chornobyl aftermath (“Questions from the alienation zone,” Nov. 3), raise a number of important issues, and deserve elaboration.

Chornobyl reactor 4 after explosion

Ms. Mycio has good reason to question the latest pronouncements of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The UN report issued in September is not the first time the IAEA has tried to present itself as the ultimate authority on Chornobyl’s impact and to downplay the disaster’s health effects.

The lead author of the IAEA report, Dr. Fred Mettler, testified in July 1992 before a U.S. Senate Subcommittee chaired by Sens. Joseph Lieberman and Alan Simpson. At that time, Mettler claimed that his agency had carried out the most extensive studies available, and found no discernible increase in thyroid cancer in children. Lieberman pressed Mettler on this issue because other witnesses reported alarming increases downwind from the disaster site, but Mettler held firm in his denials.

Five weeks after that hearing, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the prestigious British scientific journal Nature shattered Mettler’s credibility with a detailed analysis that showed an 80-fold increase in thyroid cancer, especially in children living in or near contaminated villages in Belarus. By 1992 there was ample evidence of a major increase in thyroid cancer in Ukraine as well, especially in the regional children’s hospitals in Chernihiv and Zhytomyr, which served children from the most contaminated regions. If Mettler and his collaborators were in the least bit interested in comparing the incidence of thyroid cancer before and after Chornobyl, they could have easily reviewed the data from the central Institutes of Endocrinology in Minsk and Kyiv, where most thyroid operations were performed.

Support mobilized

The WHO report was crucial because it mobilized the international community and local activists in Ukraine and Belarus to conduct effective thyroid screenings and physician training programs to improve the treatment of this otherwise very rare form of cancer in children. Thanks to this effective international response, very few of these children died, but nearly all will have to take thyroid replacement hormone for the rest of their lives, and thousands now bear the so-called “Chornobyl necklace,” a prominent scar across their lower throat where their thyroid gland was extracted. The spike in thyroid cancers has resulted in many personal tragedies and smaller heartbreaks that are never reflected in the cold statistics of public health research. I’m reminded of a teenage girl from the Svyatoshyn district in Kyiv, an aspiring opera singer, whose thyroid surgery permanently damaged her vocal cords and bloated her once youthful figure.

One would think that the IAEA and Dr. Mettler would have been humbled by the WHO findings. A reasonable scientist genuinely interested in public health and the advancement of knowledge concerning radiation effects would have considered the possibility, if not the likelihood, that other types of cancer might also have been caused by exposure to radioactive particles and that these cancers deserved a closer look.

But as Ms. Mycio points out, there have been no serious studies of other forms of cancer and the IAEA completely ignored 400,000 nuclear cleanup workers who were among the highest risk groups when arriving at their rosy estimate that only 4,000 excess cancer deaths would ever be traced to the disaster.

When they could no longer refute the many follow-up studies that corroborated an explosion in thyroid cancer, the IAEA pursued a policy of damage control and tried to limit the scope of further research by claiming that any other health effects were purely anecdotal and unrelated to the Chornobyl disaster. It was a strangely circular but distinctly unscientific approach: If not thyroid, then not Chornobyl. In a perversion of Christ’s adage “seek and ye shall find,” the IAEA adopted a policy of “seek not or ye may regret your findings.” What’s worse, the IAEA has consistently carried out a virtual smear campaign against Chornobyl victims and their health workers, accusing those who presented evidence of health effects of suffering from hysteria and “radiophobia.” It is a familiar slur. Environmental activists and independent scientists who raised public awareness of the effects of DDT and asbestos and coal dust faced the same sneers from industry apologists until research proved them dead right.

Carrying the torch

Today, the scope of Chornobyl research needs to expand to the next generation. A joint Israeli-Ukrainian study published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine in the United Kingdom found that children born to Chornobyl liquidators had suffered a seven-fold increase in chromosome damage as compared to their siblings born prior to the disaster. Not all this damage will manifest itself in birth defects in the first generation. But despite the nuclear lobby’s vehement denials that this has anything to do with Chornobyl, widespread evidence of an environmental tragedy is being gathered.

I would invite Dr. Mettler and Ms. Mycio to visit the orphanages in the remote towns of Tsyuropinsk, Zaluchya and Znamyanka where children with severe birth defects are packed into crowded dormitories and kept out of sight and out of mind. Many of these birth defects have been documented in a Japanese study in Belarus in 1994 and in the Oscar-winning documentary “Chernobyl Heart.” In my last visit to one of our partner hospitals in Rivne, I learned that in the previous month there were nine children born in that facility with bizarre birth defects that should occur very rarely: Babies born without ears, with missing critical organs, with deformed arms, with multiple digits. Prior to Chornobyl, there might have been one isolated incident once every few years, but maternity hospitals and neonatal wards across Ukraine are reporting a noticeable increase in clusters of these defects. One can bend over backwards and insist that these deformities can happen naturally in the absence of some environmental insult, but at some point, this begins to strain credibility.

The glowing media reports of the so-called “magisterial” report offered by the IAEA never reported on the fervent dissents and contradictory evidence offered by respected scientists from Ukraine, Belarus and Russia who are working most closely with the relevant patient population.

We forget that for many years, physicians were prohibited from listing radiation-related illnesses as a cause of death, and public health researchers were intimidated and urged to eliminate references to Chornobyl fallout as a factor in the rapid decline of health of adults and children between 1991 and 2001. In Belarus, several researchers have been jailed for challenging the prevailing wisdom on Chornobyl’s negligible impact.

Worst is yet to come

The IAEA is fond of proclaiming that there has been no increase in leukemia incidence since Chornobyl. Perhaps, but studies by Swedish and Greek scientists have traced an increase in leukemia in children in their countries to radiation exposure from Chornobyl, and it is hard to imagine that more pronounced increases would not occur closer to the epicenter of the disaster. It is well known that the latency period for many forms of cancer can be 20 years or more, and the half-life of the most widespread cancer-causing isotope dispersed by Chornobyl, cesium 137, is 30 years. So the greatest increase in cancer and leukemia could still occur in the next 10 years, or beyond. The international community needs to stay vigilant, and continue to strengthen Ukraine’s capacity for combating a second wave of cancers. Just as the IAEA was caught off guard by an early emergence of thyroid cancers, it may again have to re-evaluate all of its models and calculations should leukemia rates start to climb later than expected.

Beyond cancer, there are many other health effects that deserve closer study. Peer-reviewed studies by Dr. Anna Petrova from the Robert Wood Johnson Health Network and Dr. Olesya Hulchiy from the Kyiv Medical University have found a higher rate of pregnancy complications and stillbirths among women living in areas contaminated by fallout.

Before the IAEA can close the book on Chornobyl, the world community would do well to demand some answers to the glaring omissions and errors that have riddled the Agency’s post-Chornobyl track record.

Source: Kyiv Post