It’s been 29 years since the Chernobyl disaster and it’s still making headlines – a fox was recently seen making a very impressive sandwich in the region. While it’s probably safe to assume this wasn’t a result of the radiation, what’s happened to the people affected by the disaster, and what else has been going on in the area?
Animals (foxes aside…) and plants
It’s recently been shown that dead trees and plants in the area aren’t decomposing, even after decades! This is due to a decreased presence of decomposers, meaning there is nothing to break the biomass down. It had previously been found that trees have been growing slower, and the reduced rate of decay accounts for this – nutrients aren’t being effectively returned to the soil.
The massive exclusion zone around the reactor has, in some ways, become something of a wildlife reserve – with foliage overtaking abandoned settlements and animals like bears, horses and wolves sneaking in. In a strange turn of events, both the diversity and the number of animals present has seriously increased! Others (interestingly, those who claim massive rates of animal abnormalities as part of a bitter dispute), have claimed this is simply anecdotal, but either way it would be an interesting outcome of such a large scale disaster!
There’s been evidence of young birds in the area having brains 5% smaller than expected when compared to those which had not experienced levels of radiation higher than background levels. A few theories have been suggested, but the mechanisms behind this correlation are unknown. Other problems observed in birds have included malformed tails, dead or deformed sperm, and partial albinism (loss of pigmentation), with much higher incidence rates in highly contaminated areas. Similar issues have been reported across a wide range of creatures.
There have been countless suggestions of health effects following the Chernobyl disaster, and though many are disputed, one of the only things that can be agreed upon is that effects have been greater and much easier to measure in the immediate vicinity. Above average radiation levels were encountered over much of Europe, but with cancer already accounting for a quarter of deaths in the continent, the effect of Chernobyl at this scale is simply impossible to measure!
In the three months following the accident, 31 people died as a direct result. In addition to the 28 workers at the plant who died within four months and the 19 who died in the years following, many are suffering from problems such as skin injuries and cataracts. There have been a huge number of theories, studies and investigations since the accident looking at the longer term and wider reaching effects.
The most notorious of these is the increased incidence of thyroid cancer. A ten-fold increase in the number of children with thyroid cancer was seen in highly contaminated areas of the Soviet Union within just five years. Fewer than 20 of these people have died, but the scale of the problem is huge - with over 5,000 affected. Interestingly, these aren’t considered to have been down to direct radiation exposure, but are attributed to drinking radioiodine contaminated milk. A long-term study of 25,000 people who were children in Ukraine or Belarus at the time of the accident has indicated far higher incidence levels than usual (proportional to the size of the dose).
Leukaemia, cardiovascular disease, breast cancer and skin cancer are just a small selection of other illnesses claimed to have been increased in incidence by the radiation levels. However, there is a lot of doubt over these theories, and the effects are actually widely considered to be not as bad as expected. The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) dismissed a UN report on the long term effects, stating quite scathingly that it was “full of unsubstantiated statements that have no support in scientific assessments”. In addition, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission say that “The available evidence does not strongly connect the accident to radiation-induced increases of leukaemia or solid cancer, other than thyroid cancer”. The wide reaching effects are more or less impossible to assess, given the huge and complex mixture of contributing factors to the illnesses in question (genetics, smoking, obesity and alcohol - to name just a few), so it can be argued that claims made supporting either side could have it completely wrong.
More interesting reading!