Health lessons from Chernobyl
March 23rd, 2011
05:31 PM ET

Health lessons from Chernobyl

With ongoing problems at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant – including the latest warning that radiation has turned up in Tokyo’s drinking water – CNN is looking at past nuclear accidents for a hint of the long-term impact.

The worst nuclear accident ever took place in 1986 when there was a massive explosion at the plant in Chernobyl, in the Ukraine region of the former Soviet Union. A team from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington, has conducted long-term studies looking at cancer rates in the area. Scott Davis, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington, leads the research, including three studies of childhood cancer, one childhood leukemia study and a study now under way on breast cancer rates.

The team compares people who have the illness being studied, with people who are not sick, while estimating the amount of radiation each individual was exposed to. Through this method they estimate the increase in cancer cases that can be attributed to radiation exposure. An important part of the approach involves making estimates of each individual’s exposure; this is done through computer models and interviews with each person about his or her location and movements.

Davis has conducted three studies of childhood cancer, one specifically on childhood leukemia and is currently doing a study on breast cancer. He just returned from his latest trip to Russia and talked with CNN about his work.

CNN: How many people died because of the Chernobyl accident?

Davis: You see estimates that span a huge range, from a few hundred, to tens of thousands. I think the WHO and United Nations estimates [that about 4,000 deaths can be blamed on the accident] are pretty reasonable.

CNN: How do you sum up the health impact around Chernobyl?

Davis: The primary impact has been thyroid cancer, and to a lesser extent childhood leukemia. And of course there were acute effects to the people who were right there, related to their work [fighting the fire, cleaning up]. What’s surprising to many people, is that this is the extent of what we can say for sure.

CNN: We don’t know much about radiation’s effects in these situations?  I guess no one’s running experiments where they dose people with lots of radiation.

Davis: That’s right. The environmental events that have exposed people are relatively few and are quite different: Chernobyl, Hanford [the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state, where plutonium was processed for the first atomic bombs], A-bomb survivor studies. Those are the major sources of what we know.

CNN: Aside from computer models and interviews, is there any way to measure past exposure? Does exposure to high radiation leave a signature?

Davis: That's what we'd all like to have, but there is no such thing. There’s no marker of exposure or difference in the disease…Thyroid cancer from radiation looks like thyroid cancer of any other kind. Same with other cancers.

CNN: In Japan there’s debate about how far away from the damaged reactor is safe. In Chernobyl, how far did the danger extend?

Davis: It’s a difficult answer. In Chernobyl the pattern of contamination is not uniform at all; it’s very spotty. If you look at a map… you see spots of heavy contamination, where people would have gotten heavy exposures, mixed with areas of no or very little contamination. They don’t follow a nice even pattern. It depends on precipitation patterns and other things.

CNN: Is there any point beyond which you could say was safe?

Davis: For Chernobyl, there was definitely risk beyond 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) but we don’t don’t really know how far.

CNN: 100 miles out?

Davis: It’s hard to say, but 100 miles away, it’s unlikely you’d pick up an increase in disease.

There might be a few affected individuals, but you’d never pick that up with an epidemiological study.

CNN: What are the main ways people were exposed?

Davis:For the thyroid, the worst pathway by far is through milk. Second are green and leafy vegetables, and fruits. Inhalation and water are less important.

CNN: Dr. David Brenner of Columbia University said that upwards of 90 percent of thyroid cancer cases around Chernobyl could have been avoided if authorities had simply told people to stop drinking milk. Do you agree with that?

Davis: Yes, I do.

soundoff (30 Responses)
  1. heidi

    why milk? I don't understand? because of the cows affected by the radiation?

    March 23, 2011 at 17:55 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Stan Chraminski

      HI, I understand it's because the radiation settles in the grass and feed that the cattle eat so they get high doses that gets into their milk. Cattle eat a lot so soak up more bad stuff than we might eat directly. Probably not too good for the cattle in the long run either – don't eat the beef. Then the thyroid filters the stuff internally in us so gets the biggest doses and the cell changes leading to cancer.

      March 23, 2011 at 18:03 | Report abuse |
    • g-money


      March 23, 2011 at 22:37 | Report abuse |
    • Tcat

      Because the radioactive dust got into the grass that the cows ate. Some fallout isn't powerful enough to hurt you externally, but if you get it inside you it causes major damage to internal organs. Since the cows ate the fallout their milk was radioactive, which introduced the otherwise safe fallout into the people's body where it caused cancer.

      March 23, 2011 at 22:58 | Report abuse |
    • Sword24

      Their food was radioactive.DUH
      O O

      March 24, 2011 at 16:55 | Report abuse |
    • rickcain

      When you are at the top of the food chain (humans...), you concentrate radioactivity in the environment into your body, because you drink milk and eat meat. Cows already concentrate radioactivity by eating irradiated grass and storing the isotopes in their muscles and fat. When you consume the cow and drink the milk you are concentrating the radioactivity in your body even more. Since we have relatively long lifespans, we add more and more over time to our bodies, so the inevitable health problems crop up.

      This is why a tiny field mouse that lives a year and only eats grass and crickets may be only slightly affected by radiation, but a human in the same environment will suffer many radiation related maladies.

      March 25, 2011 at 10:39 | Report abuse |
  2. kite005

    I like this. The article is supposed to be about the health lessons from Chernobyl. Most of the answers are something like "we don't know". Then there is some mention of a distance from the reactor site which isn't very specific and the a mention of milk and lettuce. That's it.

    March 23, 2011 at 18:54 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Richard Cory

      That's because the effects of Chernobyl did not cause major, statistically measurable medical problems.That, in and of itself, is the main point of this article. When the Chernobyl disaster was unfolding, the news channels were full of "experts" forecasting millions of future cancer deaths. I see many "experts" wringing their hands about Fukishima when I turn on the news today.

      March 24, 2011 at 05:06 | Report abuse |
    • rickcain

      Fukushima has the potential to be FAR worse than Chernobyl. Chernobyl was only one reactor explosion, Fukushima is FOUR reactors, plus 96 spent fuel cores at the facility. If there ever is a runaway fire or meltdown the potential for a worldwide radiological disaster is there. We are talking 7000 tons of nuclear material that could go up.

      One interesting tidbit is that Chernobyl is not the USSR's worst nuclear disaster. They had one before that was so profound that it was hushed up and to this very day the Russian government still is tight lipped about the extent. A storage tank of nuclear material exploded at a processing plant, causing a plume that spread for miles. This was during the darkest days of the cold war.

      March 25, 2011 at 10:32 | Report abuse |
  3. Mudshark

    kite005 is right on! This article was a nearly complete waste of time, with NO useful information. It's not news, it's CNN!

    March 23, 2011 at 19:11 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Sword24

      IKR(I know right)

      March 23, 2011 at 20:25 | Report abuse |
    • Renee

      I agree. The 'story' is so incomplete it shouldn't have been written. A complete waste of my time.

      March 24, 2011 at 10:48 | Report abuse |
  4. Frangible

    Uh, the article stated the most harmful radioisotope (Iodine-131) responsible for pretty much all of the cancers, and the pathway into the body (cow's milk).

    I'm not sure what more practical info you could have, or want.

    March 23, 2011 at 19:41 | Report abuse | Reply
    • KClem

      Actually, I-131 doesn't *caus* thyroid cancer; it's the treatment for it. http://www.endocrineweb.com/conditions/thyroid-cancer/nuclear-bombs-radioiodine-thyroid-cancer.

      While I don't disagree that there has been an increase in cancers in Chernobyl survivors, and most notably, thyroid cancer, the isotope you're stating as causing it is incorrect. Beyond that, nowhere in this article does it say that it's I-131.

      March 23, 2011 at 22:27 | Report abuse |
    • radiationtherapy

      @KClem: while it is true I-131 is used to treat thyroid disease (not just cancer for that matter), it certainly was the responsible agent in causing the Chernobyl thyroid cancers. Thyroid hormone requires incorporation of iodine, so the thyroid gland concentrates most of the body's circulating iodine within the gland. If that is a radioactive isotope of iodine, it causes radiation right there where it is localized. If you want to ablate the thyroid gland with a medical treatment, you use so much iodine that it just kills most of the cells off. If levels are lower, the cells don't die but they sustain a lot of DNA damage which can lead to cancer (just like radiation to other cells in the body).

      You're right the article doesn't state it was I-131, but trust me, I'm a doctor.

      March 24, 2011 at 13:40 | Report abuse |
  5. Sword24

    i was tried to get answers from this article but it wasn't any use

    March 23, 2011 at 20:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. LENA


    March 23, 2011 at 21:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. K Ulriksen

    I had a friend who worked on monitoring station for Chernobyl before it blew. His family and him lived in Kiev. While their older child, a daughter, doesn't have many problems, their son who was an infant at the time of the meltdown has bone's and teeth that are extremely brittle. At 8 years old, he had to be fitted for a full set of dentures. So they didn't die, but their lives were definitely negatively impacted by the incident. As some one who worked on the monitoring, he knew that the truth was being told about the extent of the damage. Consequently, he immigrated to the U.S.

    March 23, 2011 at 22:26 | Report abuse | Reply
    • rickcain

      Hopefully he didn't move to Nevada

      March 25, 2011 at 10:34 | Report abuse |
  8. K Ulriksen

    rrr... *wasn't being told about the extent.....

    March 23, 2011 at 22:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. newmexiconative

    they should study los alamos, nm where the bomb was developed.

    March 23, 2011 at 22:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. jack h

    the amount of radiation suddenly released from a small a bomb is very small as compared to high radiation continously released from a damaged reactor. most of the health effects from chernoble were covered up to prevent public fear.

    March 24, 2011 at 12:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Sword24

    i am confused about this article.
    there is no point to it at all

    March 24, 2011 at 16:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. rickcain

    Nobody really knows how many people died from Chernobyl because the Soviet Union had a very secretive government. They would move people around who were exposed to other areas, and when they died of cancers or had other radiation related illnesses it would not be counted. There are tens of thousands of chernobyl survivors who have shocking medical histories of continual hospitalizations, surgeries, treatments and yet still can't get the government even now to admit that their exposure was the cause.

    The problem with corporate news like CNN is that the very same company has big interests and investments in energy production. There is little interest in revealing truth about nuclear power's detrimental effects on public health because it can hurt CNN's bottom line. The investors would not be happy.

    March 25, 2011 at 10:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Lynn Miles

    How sad... 🙁
    - No, how criminal. You just might be duping people to their deaths, y'know.
    If we want truth in reporting, guess we'lll have to turn off our TVs and go to the Salt Lake Tribune....
    Written by Russian and Belarus experts, edited and published by the New York Academy of Sciences, the book is Chernobyl : Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment. Drawing from more than 5,000 published articles and studies, the authors’ conclusions about the disaster in the former Soviet Union are authoritative and startling. So far, 1 million people from around the world have already died from Chernobyl radiation, including over 110,000 of the original 830,000 cleanup workers. High doses of radioactive fallout reached much of Europe and the United Kingdom and 750 million people in the Northern Hemisphere received significant contamination. The accident released 200 times more radiation than previously thought, hundreds of times more than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    The actual number cited in the book is 985,000 deaths by 2004, so we extrapolate forward from that to arrive at OVER A MILLION DEATHS. And the suffering still goes on and on. This number is not put out by anti-nuke people who the CNN loves to deride as quacks, but by the very reputable NY Academy of Sciences - all but ignored by the mainstream press, not to mention apparently unknown to "experts" like Davis, who tell us the "high range" of the death estimates is "tens of thousands."

    CNN = Criminally Negligent Nukesters

    March 27, 2011 at 18:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. vaughn Nebeker

    when do I get payed for putting out chernobyl. COD cash on delivery.

    October 25, 2011 at 16:43 | Report abuse | Reply
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  17. vaughñnebeker

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