On Chernobyl's 25th Anniversary, Debate on Long-Term Health Effects

Apr 26, 2011, 13:40 by Greg Stacy

Chernobyl's 25th anniversary is today, but as we mark this grim occasion debate continues about the disaster's long-term health effects.

On April 26th, 1986, the No. 4 reactor at the Chernobyl plant exploded because of an accident during a safety test experiment. 31 people, most of them firefighters who had rushed to the scene trying to control the raging blaze, immediately died of radiation poisoning. The disaster sent a cloud of radiation sweeping across Europe, and in the following decade more people died of radiation poisoning. In 2008, a United Nations report stated that 6,000 thyroid cancers in young people were linked to the accident.

But even now, decades on, experts continue to debate the long-term health effects of the Chernobyl disaster. There are many complicating factors that make it difficult to appraise the lasting damage. Adequate research funding is hard to come by, and researchers lack access to good health records. Locals who survived the disaster speak many different languages and have now scattered across different areas, and many of them no longer recall their precise whereabouts at the time of the disaster.

But we may be able to learn a lot more about radiation poisoning in the next few years. Kirsten Moysich, Philip McCarthy and Per Hall, co-authors of a United Nations study on the effects of the Chernobyl disaster, write that the recent disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan "sadly...offer[s] another opportunity to study the cancer consequences of accidents at nuclear power plants."

Unlike the former Soviet Union, for many years Japan has studied the epidemiology of radiation, giving it a chance to put together new, scientifically sound and relatively speedy investigations.

Unfortunately Chernobyl remains potentially dangerous, even today. Years ago a makeshift containment shell was hastily put over the leaking reactor, but recently that shell has been failing and radiation has been escaping again. Earlier this month, the world community pledged $780 million to help build a new containment shell at Chernobyl.