Relocation and hand-outs have caused more illness than radiation, a new UN study concludes.
Sunday January 6, 2002
It is seen as the worst man-made disaster in history, killing tens of thousands, making tens of millions ill, and afflicting generations to come. Exhibitions of photographs of the deformed victims have toured the world, raising funds and awareness.
Now a report from the United Nations on the consequences of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster 15 years after the event comes to a very different conclusion. It says the medical effects of radiation are far less than was thought. The biggest damage to health has instead come from hypochondria and well-meaning but misguided attempts to help people.
The report suggests the relocation of hundreds of thousands of people 'destroyed communities, broke up families, and led to unemployment, depression, and stress-related illnesses'. Generous welfare benefits, holidays, food and medical help given to anyone declared a victim of Chernobyl have created a dependency culture, and created a sense of fatalism in millions of people.
The Human Consequences of the Chernobyl Nuclear Accident, published by the UN Development Programme and Unicef, is a challenge to those who seek to highlight the dangers of nuclear energy.
More than 100 emergency workers on the site of the accident on 26 April 1986 suffered radiation sickness, and 41 of them died. The biggest direct consequences of the radiation are increases in childhood thyroid cancer, normally a very rare disease, that increased 60-fold in Belarus, 40-fold in Ukraine, and 20-fold in Russia, totalling 1,800 cases in all.
The report says other evidence of increases in radiation-related diseases is very limited. 'Intensive efforts to identify an excess of leukaemia in the evacuated and controlled zone populations and recovery workers were made without success. There remains no internationally accredited evidence of an excess of leukaemia.' There is also no evidence of an increase in other cancers, and there has been no statistical increase in deformities in babies. The only deformities related to radiation were among babies of pregnant women working on the site at the time of the explosion.
The UN believes most of the deformed babies photographed by Western charities to raise funds have nothing to do with Chernobyl, but are the normal deformities that occur at a low level in every population. 'The direct effect of radiation is not that substantial,' said Oksana Garnets, head of the UN Chernobyl programme. 'There is definitely far more psychosomatic illness than that caused by radiation.'
The evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people, particularly from less contaminated areas, is seen as an over-reaction, which in some cases did more harm than good. 'The first reaction was to move people out. Only later did we think that perhaps some of them shouldn't have been moved. It has become clear that the direct influence of radiation on health is actually much less that the indirect consequences on health of relocating hundreds of thousands of people,' Garnets said.
Among relocated populations, there has been a massive increase in stress-related illnesses, such as heart disease and obesity, unrelated to radiation.
The UN is concerned about the corrosive effects of handouts to those classified as Chernobyl victims. In Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, they get more than 50 different privileges and benefits, including monthly payments and free school meals, medical treatment and holidays. In Ukraine, 'victims' get up to $100 a month.
In Ukraine, 92,000 people have been officially designated as permanently disabled, and half of the population says their health has been affected.
'There is an incentive to get classified as a victim. People getting benefits think they should get more and more. They think everything should be done for them by someone else - it creates a huge sense of fatalism and pessimism, which means they don't get on with their life,' Garnets said.
In the largely deserted village of Chernobyl, 18km from the reactor and deep inside the government's total exclusion zone, the UN's report was welcomed among the 600 people who have illegally returned to their old homes.
Nina Melnik, 47, who edits a local newsletter, said: 'I don't just know that relocating people killed more than the radiation did, it is scientifically proven. It was totally the wrong thing to do. They should open up the area and let everyone come back.'
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002