ECRR: Chernobyl 20 Years on. The Health Effects of the Chernobyl Accident

This is a summary of Chapter One of the ECRR book. It was prepared as part of LLRC's complaint to the BBC's Editorial Complaints Unit about a documentary, Nuclear Nightmares transmitted 13th July 2006 as part of the BBC's science output.
The following is not intended to be scientifically robust — it's just a guide to the contents. For detail please refer to the ECRR 2006 or the original researchers. The health conditions are listed in the order they appear in the book. The presence of a condition here indicates that the parameter has worsened since the accident and many of the studies report a dose dependent relationship.
Direct quotes are italicised.
  • Stillbirths, miscarriages, infant mortality, general mortality, cancer mortality, sudden deaths.
  • Thyroid cancer.
  • The 40 % increase in all malignancies between 1990 and 2000 correlates with radioactive fallout levels. The list of cancer sites includes retinoblastoma, lung, intestines, colon, kidneys, female breast, bladder, respiratory organs, nervous system, pancreas, all cancers in children.
  • Psychological diseases correlate with levels of radioactive pollution. There is a steep and continuing increase in diseases of the nervous system, e.g. congenital convulsive syndrome, brain circulation pathology, general neurological diseases, short-term memory loss, deterioration of attention function in school-children.
  • In adults there is growing evidence of a syndrome marked by deteriorating memory and motor skills, occurrence of convulsions, and pulsing headaches. This is caused by the destruction of brain cells and in the region has been dubbed Chernobyl dementia.
  • In the Chernobyl territories cataracts have become a common disease.
  • Urogenital illnesses correlate with levels of radioactive pollution, and include interruption of pregnancy, gestosis, premature birth, inflammation of female genitals, ovarian cysts, uterine fibroma, menstrual irregularities, kidney infections, kidney stones, stones in urinary passages, infringements of sexual development, complications of pregnancy and births, failures of pregnancy, medical abortions, infertility, pathology of sperm, sclerocystosis, early impotence in men aged 25 - 30, structural changes of testiculus, spermatogenesis disturbances, lactation in 70- year old women, and delayed puberty as well as accelerated sexual development.
  • Diseases of the cardio-vascular system and blood are one of the most common consequences of the Chernobyl radioactive pollution:- anaemia, illnesses of the blood circulation system, arterial hypertensia or hypotensia, disturbances of heart rhythm and digestive systems, macrocitosis of lymphocytes, diseases of the blood and circulatory organs in adults, early atherosclerosis and ischemic heart disease, leucopenia, infringement of the blood supply in legs, changes in abundance and activity of leukocytes.
  • There is much evidence correlating fallout levels with endocrine/hormone diseases, e.g. incidence rate for Type 1 diabetes mellitus in Belarus. Similarly thyroid gland diseases (autoimmune thyroiditis, thyrotoxicosis, diabetes etc.). In 1993 more than 40 % of the surveyed children in the Gomel area of Belarus had an enlarged thyroid gland. Experts think up to 1.5 million people in Belarus are at risk of pathology of the thyroid gland.
  • In some of the Chernobyl-polluted territories immune systems are compromised, with changes to cellular and humoral immunity, decreased maintenance T- and B- lymphocytes, reduced resistance to infections and other diseases, raised frequency and expressiveness of tonsillitis, lymphadenopathies and lowered resistance to cancer.
  • In the radioactively polluted territories the typical consequence of infringement of the immune system appears as an immuno-deficiency. An increase in frequency and intensity of both acute and chronic diseases is observed everywhere in the Chernobyl polluted territories. Sometimes the weakening of the immune system in these radioactively polluted territories is referred to as Chernobyl AIDS.
  • There is accelerated ageing among the people in radioactively polluted territories in the Ukraine: their biological age exceeds their actual age by 7 - 9 years. In highly polluted territories in Belarus the mean age of men and women who died from heart attacks was 8 years younger than the average across Belarus.
  • The array of diseases commonly considered exclusive to the elderly is now typical for children in all of the heavily polluted territories. The immune system activity of these children is similar to the type of immune system activity experienced in old age. The pathology of the digestive system epithelium in children from the polluted areas of Belarus also shows similarities with elderly people.
  • There are many studies showing a wide range of chromosomal aberrations in the Chernobyl radioactively polluted areas. Examples:- higher frequency of chromosomal aberrations in somatic cells, lowered mitotic index in polluted districts, increased mutation rates in satellite DNA, chromosomal aberrations and satellite DNA mutations increased in children with thyroid cancer, chromosomal mutations de novo higher in polluted territories.
  • In the polluted territories, compared with clean ones, there is increasing morbidity by intestinal toxicosis, gastro-enteritis, dysbacteriosis, sepses, respiratory viruses, herpes infections, trichocephalisis, pneumocistis, cryptosporidosis, tuberculosis, viral hepatitis, cytomegalovirus (CMV) infection. Microsporia occur in the radioactively polluted territories of the Bryansk areas (Russia) more frequently and in a more virulent form.
  • There are increases in children’s general morbidity, and increases in rare illnesses in the Chernobyl polluted territories of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia; It is clear that children in heavily radio-polluted territories really do suffer, to a much greater degree, from a variety of diseases.
  • Practically all forms of studied nosology are more prevalent […] [there is] a convincing picture of sharply worsening health in children from the polluted territories. Conditions listed under this heading are:- chronic gastritis, chronic duodenitis, chronic gastro-duodenitis, bilious dyskinesia, vegeto-vascular and cardiac syndrome, astheno-neurotic syndrome, chronic tonsillitis, caries, chronic periodontitis.
  • Total child morbidity in Ukraine increased by 2.9 times between 1986 and 2001, newborn morbidity in Belarus increases year-on-year at a rate of 9.5% with greatest increases in the most polluted Gomel area. The spectrum of children’s non-cancer illnesses in the polluted territories includes lowered birthweight in those irradiated in utero in Ukraine, reduced head circumference in newborns in the polluted territories of Ukraine and Belarus, (this is known from Hiroshima also and is recognised as a radiation teratogenic effect), infringements of the rate of physical development in those irradiated in utero, premature birth more common in the polluted territories of Belarus, delayed rate of growth in the radioactively polluted parts of Belarus.
  • Respiratory system diseases occurred everywhere in the polluted territories and tend to correlate with levels of radioactive pollution:- asphyxia was observed in half of the 345 surveyed newborns irradiated in utero in Ukraine (presumably this was a study of peri-natal mortality). Other pathologies were latent bronchospasm, bronchial asthma, chronic bronchitis, chronic nasopharyngeal pathology, acute respiratory diseases.
  • Cardiovascular system diseases in children occurred more frequently in the polluted territories, including infringements of cardiac rhythm, infringements of vegetative regulation of cardiac activity, arterial hypertension, reduced numbers of B- and T-lymphocytes, lymphopenia, brachycardia, lymphoid hyperplasia, haematological disease, heart conductivity, and reduced elasticity of arterial vessels even in apparently healthy children.
  • Dental diseases in children are more frequent in the Chernobyl radioactively polluted territories. The frequency of some dental diseases correlates with levels of radioactive pollution.
  • Congenital malformations. Increased rates of teratogenic effects reported all over Europe, with a dose dependent relationship found in a Bavarian study. In Europe there were also widespread increases in still birth, premature birth, low birth weight, Down's Syndrome, perinatal and neonatal deaths, and reduced birth rate. In Belarus, according to the Belarus National Genetic Monitoring Registry, there were post-Chernobyl increases in anencephaly, spina bifida, cleft lip, cleft palate, polydactyly, limb reduction, oesophageal atresia, anorectal atresia and multiple malformations. Many of the authors explicitly state that these phenomena are radiogenic. One, a researcher known for her caution, says only a third of congenital deformities of the face and jaw could be attributed to radiation. But it is a third, and those which are so attributed are said to be anomalously severe.
  • The proportion of children with impaired intellectual development is consistently greater in polluted areas. Irradiated children have not kept pace with other children. Disorders of intellectual development in children irradiated in utero in the polluted territories are described as the most tragic consequences of the Chernobyl catastrophe’s impact on health. The ECRR 2006 book has an entire chapter on the topic. Its author observes that the official French agency IRSN has recognised that the Central Nervous System is radiosensitive, while the Chernobyl Forum 2005 report has many gaps and even errors on mental, psychological and CNS effects, and even misrepresents WHO findings. Children irradiated in utero whose mothers had been evacuated or who lived in a zone contaminated with between 5 and 40 Ci/km2, suffered a greater frequency of neurotic disorders, CNS pathology and delay of mental development, compared with children in the less polluted areas of Belarus. The depression of intellectual development was massively greater in the irradiated group than in the controls; pathologies include neurotic disorders, asthenic syndrome, vegetative dystonia, CNS organic pathology, delayed mental development, EEG pathology, delayed development of speech, lowered psycho-emotional development, low IQ indices, deviations in mental development, memory impairment, immaturity for school, organic pathology of the brain, decreased and delayed psychomotor development, epilepsy and epilepsy-related conditions, and schizophrenia.
Overview of health in Lugyny district

Here are some health statistics for one remote Ukrainian administrative district from the Zhytomir area – Lugyny district, which is not one of the most contaminated regions. Comparison is made between two years just before the accident (1984 – 1985) and 1995 - 1996, ten years after. All the medical information for this study was collected by the same people in the Central Hospital before and after the catastrophe, using the same equipment and the same protocols.

The proportion of detected tuberculoses which were of a very aggressive type doubled. Endocrine pathology in children increased 10-fold. Goitres were not registered before the accident but ten years later were found in 12 or 13 children per 1000. Neonatal morbidity increased between 4 and 13-fold. Total mortality increased from 10.9 per 1000 to 15.5. Life expectancy declined from 75 years to 65.

Life-expectancy remaining to a patient in Lugyny District after being diagnosed with lung or stomach cancer shrank from 38 – 62 months before the accident to 2 – 7 months afterwards. The CERRIE Minority Report (p. 126) observes that this reduction in life expectancy runs counter to the view that increased incidence of cancer since the Chernobyl accident has been an artefact caused by increased vigilance and hence better ascertainment. Some commentators (apologists for nuclear power) claim that if doctors do more screening, more thyroid cancer will be detected. However, better ascertainment ought to mean earlier detection and hence more effective treatment and a better prognosis. In the Lugyny overview we see a dramatically worse prognosis — after a lung or stomach cancer diagnosis the average patient now survives for only 4½ months, instead of between 3 and 5 years before Chernobyl. Only four explanations are readily apparent:

  1. doctors are not looking for cancer as assiduously as before Chernobyl, so they detect it very late in its course;
  2. treatment resources are much reduced;
  3. cancer patients fear that their cancer was caused by radiation;
  4. the post-Chernobyl cancers are of a more aggressive type.
The first of these is contrary to the general pattern. The second is possible and should be investigated. The third is, to put it mildly, contentious (nuclear apologists claim that the increase in ill-health in the region is caused by radiophobia). The fourth is consistent with many observations in the region including non-cancer diseases.

ECRR Chernobyl 20 Years On: Health Effects of the Chernobyl Accident European Committee on Radiation Risk Documents of the ECRR 2006 No1 Edited by C.C.Busby and A.V. Yablokov Published on behalf of the European Committee on Radiation Risk Comité Européen sur le Risque de l’Irradiation, Brussels by Green Audit, 2006. ISBN: 1-897761-25-2 Downloadable free

If you are seeing this page full screen (i.e. without a navigation bar on the left) you can't see how the rest of the site is organised.
This Home page link takes you to the index page, which has links to all the topics we discuss on the site [only use it if this page is full screen]
Use the Health Effects of low level radiation button to see what else we have to say on this topic.

Send email to: with questions or comments about this web site.