April 30, 2006
BY DAVE NEWBART
Even though the Chernobyl nuclear disaster happened 20 years ago last week, experts said Saturday some of the long-term health effects might just be beginning.
That’s because the latency period for many cancers associated with radiation exposure is 10 to 15 years or more.
And research presented Saturday at a conference at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Public Health lends credence to that.
The new research by Alexei Okeanov, a specialist in oncology and epidemiology in Minsk, Belarus, showed that since 1997, emergency workers who responded to the Chernobyl crisis had a 23 percent higher risk than normal of developing tumors associated with several types of cancer.
While emergency workers clearly had the highest risk, residents living in contaminated areas in Belarus — which is northwest of Chernobyl but received the most widespread radioactive fallout because of the prevailing winds — had a 15 percent increase in such tumors. The risks were greater than predicted by other scientists, he said.
“It’s quite high,” he said, noting that it’s only getting worse as they analyze more-recent data. “It’s higher and higher every year.”
Okeanov works closely with the Great Lakes Centers for Occupational Safety and Health at UIC, directed by Professor Daniel Hryhorczuk. UIC has a center in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, that manages data collection for several health studies in the area. The center has also helped train scientists there.
Aid effort ‘late,’ getting better
Those studies are important because children in the area have thyroid cancers at a rate 80 times higher than normal, according to the World Health Organization. And in the last decade, about 40,000 of the 350,000 workers sent to clean up the mess have died of leukemia, experts at the conference said. That includes one of Hryhorczuk’s relatives.
Still, he said the disaster’s impact went far beyond health.
Entire communities — about 135,000 people — were evacuated to other cities, where they were often stigmatized. Kids made fun of the evacuees, saying, “He glows in the dark,” Hryhorczuk said.
“You have to look at the disaster in its totality,” he said.
The Chernobyl plant’s explosion and fire occurred April 26, 1986. It became the world’s worst nuclear accident, sending radioactive fallout for 10 days over 77,220 square miles.
Hryhorczuk said the international aid effort was “late” but getting better. There are now plans to build a $1 billion shelter– on top of a previous shelter that was poorly built — to confine the contamination from the shuttered nuclear plant.
Daria Khan, a UIC engineering graduate who grew up in the Ukrainian Village neighborhood in Chicago, spent five years at Chernobyl as the project manager for several facilities built on or near the site and used for medical screening and training of workers. In some cases, workers train intensely for locations so contaminated they could only stay for 15 minutes — a year — before having to leave.
Khan, whose parents are from Ukraine, was proud of her work. “You always knew you were working for a special cause,” she said.