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Radiation's Complications: Pinning Health Problems on a Nuclear Disaster Isn't So Easy

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  • Radiation's Complications: Pinning Health Problems on a Nuclear Disaster Isn't So Easy

    (from Scientific American)

    Radioactive fallout seems like the obvious culprit behind the negative medical consequences that arose after the explosion at Chernobyl, but it's hard to measure even the dosage those contaminated received, let alone link it to medical problems.

    Scientists had to invent new techniques to determine how much radiation people might have actually received. For instance, Chumak and his colleagues developed a way to estimate doses people received by analyzing tooth enamel for effects of ionizing radiation. The Kiev-based team also helped establish ways to three-dimensionally simulate the radiation fields surrounding radioactive material from the disaster.

    In the end there are only a handful of rigorous studies linking Chernobyl to disease, Chumak explains. For instance, there have been at least 1,800 documented cases of thyroid cancer in children up to 14 years of age when the disaster happened, far more than normal. Children's thyroid glands are especially vulnerable, because they are prone to absorbing radioactive iodine, a by-product of the meltdown. Also, there seem to be increased levels of leukemia and cataracts at statistically significant levels among liquidators. "We're desperately looking for the effects of radiation, but we have not found more than thyroid cancer, leukemia and cataracts that is convincing," Chumak says.

    There is no doubt that people who lived in the exclusion zone have suffered problems. In addition to the cancer and cataracts reported, one also sees issues with the cardiovascular, lung, digestive and kidney systems. "We see early aging in the group from the Chernobyl disaster?if we see a man from that group who is, say, 50, the medical examination might suggest he is 10 or 15 years older compared with a member of the population of Ukraine not influenced by the disaster," says Anver Gasanov, deputy chief medical officer at the Research Center for Radiation Medicine.

    Whereas the obvious culprit might be radiation, however, other factors might be at play. For instance, elderly people who were allowed to resettle inside the exclusion zone actually live longer than those who were not, Chumak says.

    The issue might be stress. "You have all kinds of stress connected with the disaster that can lead to bad habits, such as smoking, drinking, drugs as well as add to disorders such as depression, and that then influences other diseases they can get," Gasanov explains.

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    "The next major advancement in the health of American people will be determined by what the individual is willing to do for himself"-- John Knowles, Former President of the Rockefeller Foundation