Linda Walker, from the Chernobyl Children's Project, reveals the ongoing legacy of the world's worst nuclear disaster for those most heavily affected by radiation.
In Belarus, the country which received the heaviest fall-out, those who were babies or very young children at the time of the accident are now having children of their own. In many cases their babies are born with genetic defects. For some, babies who appear to be healthy at birth are soon afterwards diagnosed with cancer or leukaemia.
However, it is very difficult to get hold of statistics on these and many other health problems. Not only does the government of Belarus prefer to give the impression that all is well, but the attachment to nuclear power by governments across the world has resulted in little enthusiasm for researching or publicising the ongoing effects of the accident. And the recent resurgence of nuclear power has brought about redoubled effort to show that the only real health consequences have been psychological, contemptuously referred to as ‘radiophobia’.
Widespread Health Impacts
Work on the ground, however, tells a different story. 800,000 people, known as liquidators, were involved in the clean up after the accident. According to the ‘Chernobyl Union’ of liquidators about 60,000 of their number have since died and many more suffer health problems and disabilities.
The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) have analysed health statistics in Belarus and found increases between 1990 and 1994 of between 30 and 60% in a wide range of illnesses – cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and disorders of the bones or nervous system.
In the 1990’s, scientists in Belarus looked at the build up of radiocaesium in the organs of the body, particularly the heart, and concluded that this could account for the recorded rises in heart disease in both children and adults.
It has also been reported that the incidence of juvenile-onset diabetes is markedly higher in the contaminated parts of the country, compared to the period before the accident. In the scientific literature, it has been suggested that this could be a consequence of exposure of the pancreas to radioactive iodine. Certainly the Association of Parents of Diabetic children in Gomel, Belarus, believe that their children are likely to have been affected by radiation.
Thyroid Cancer & Leukaemia
But far and away the most obvious and widespread health problem in the early years after the accident was thyroid cancer. In the ten years before 1986, just seven children contracted thyroid cancer in Belarus. Within four years of the accident, this level had risen by 30 times. But it was not until 1995 that the World Health Organisation (WHO) officially recognised the link between radiation from Chernobyl and thyroid cancer.
It was the Gomel Region which was most heavily affected by the fallout of Iodine-131 and children under 4 years old ingested the highest doses. The greatest number of thyroid cancers have occurred in this region and the WHO has predicted that one third of all the children from the area around Gomel aged between 0 and 4 at the time of the accident will develop thyroid cancer during their lifetime.
But thyroid cancer has been largely dismissed as unimportant by the nuclear community because it is very unusual for anyone to die from it. If your child contracted a disease which meant that he would have to have a major operation and then take hormones every day for the rest of his life, you would not consider this unimportant.
Leukaemia statistics have been the most controversial of all the health effects of the accident. In the Gomel region, an increase in leukaemia cases of about 50% compared to the period before the disaster, was recorded in both children and adults, in the early years following the accident, according to the clinics responsible.
When I first visited Belarus in 1995, doctors in Gomel told me of significant rises in leukaemia. Yet just two or three years later they were saying that there was no rise. I have never been able to establish whether there was an initial rise, which later levelled out, or whether doctors were instructed to play down the effects.
Genetic Defects & Childhood Disability
Whilst it is impossible to establish whether any particular child has been affected by Chernobyl, it is clear that the fall-out was responsible for a considerable rise in the numbers of disabled children.
The rapidly dividing cells of a foetus are particularly prone to damage from radiation. Within a short time after the nuclear disaster, a sharp increase in reproductive disorders - predominantly affecting pregnancy - was seen in Ukraine and Belarus. For the 1986-1990 period, the Ministry of Health in Ukraine recorded an increased number of miscarriages, premature births and stillbirths, as well as three times the normal rate of deformities and developmental abnormalities in newborns.
In 2001 the Belarusian Ministry of Statistics stated that there had been a 60% rise in the number of children deemed to be disabled over the previous seven years.
And in the same year Vladislav Ostapenko, head of Belarus' radiation medicine institute, told a news conference: "It is clear that we are seeing genetic changes, especially among those who were less than six years of age when subjected to radiation. These people are now starting families." Ostapenko said that within seven years of the accident, mortality rates were outstripping birth rates.
Girls in affected areas had five times the normal rate of deformations in their reproductive systems and boys three times the norm. Each year, 2,500 births were recorded with genetic abnormalities and five hundred pregnancies were terminated after abnormalities were found during testing.
How We Are Helping
Chernobyl Children’s Project (UK) brings diabetic children for recuperative holidays in the UK every summer and also helps the association to fund the purchase of test strips and other support for their families.
We also bring many children in remission from cancer for holidays, with a special focus on two age groups, the very young and older teenagers. When a mother has been through the trauma of supporting her toddler through chemo or radiotherapy, they are both very much in need of a holiday when they come out the other side. Children of four to seven years old travel with their mums for four week holidays which give them both the recuperation they need.
Children who develop cancer at 12 or 13 years old are well enough to travel about two years later. By this time they are beyond the age when most charities will invite them. We bring young people up to 19 years of age, who get a tremendous psychological boost as well as the other health benefits from their holiday in Britain.
We work closely with the Belarusian Children’s Hospice, which supports children whose cancer treatment has failed, but also have in its care many babies and young children with genetic anomalies. Much of our work is in support of children with disabilities, with projects aimed at helping to improve the social and educational opportunities for children and young people with special needs.
The line taken by governments and UN agencies today tends to be that there are no significant ongoing health effects from Chernobyl. It is possible for scientists to insist that there is no proof that radiation has affected the rate or severity of any illnesses because in recent years there have been no serious studies to settle the matter one way or the other.
For those of us working in Belarus and supporting its children, it is clear that the shadow of Chernobyl will hang over them for many years to come. www.chernobyl-children.org.uk
After working for ten years for CND in Manchester, Linda Walker worked with the City Council to organise an International Peace Festival in 1994. As a direct result of that festival, Chernobyl Children’s Project (UK) was launched the following year. Linda has been its National Co-ordinator ever since and makes regular trips to Belarus to supervise the many projects the charity runs there to improve the lives of children and their families.