- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 15, 2006

KIEV — With every cough and sore throat, every ache and pain, Valentyna Stanyuk, 54, feels Chernobyl stalking her.

“It’s only a matter of time,” she said as she waited for a thyroid test at a mobile Red Cross clinic in Bystrichy, her village, 150 miles west of Chernobyl.

The tests came back clean, but that’s little reassurance to Mrs. Stanyuk or millions of others who live in the parts of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia that were heavily irradiated when the nuclear reactor exploded 20 years ago, spewing radioactive clouds over Ukraine and much of Europe for 10 days.

The April 26, 1986, disaster forced the evacuation of large swaths of some of the former Soviet Union’s best farmland and forests. The radiation spread far enough to be detected in reindeer meat in Norway and rainfall in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. It shocked most European countries into a generation-long freeze on building nuclear plants.

And by so starkly exposing the failings of the communist system, the world’s worst nuclear accident may even have hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later.

The effect on the health of the people exposed to its invisible poisons? That is the most heatedly debated legacy of Chernobyl.

“There is so much that we still don’t know,” said Dr. Volodymyr Sert, head of a team of Red Cross doctors who canvass Ukraine’s rural Zhytomyr region in search of thyroid abnormalities — one of the few health problems that all scientists agree is linked to Chernobyl’s fallout.

After the explosion, about 116,000 residents were evacuated from a 20-mile zone around the plant. Five million others in areas that got significant fallout were not evacuated.

Over the years, there have been reports and rumors of thousands of these people dying of radiation. But a report in September by a group of United Nations agencies concluded that the accident wasn’t nearly as deadly as feared.

Fewer than 50 deaths had been directly linked to radiation exposure as of mid-2005, the report said. About 4,000 of the 600,000 “liquidators” — workers mobilized to clean up the accident site — are likely to die from radiation-related cancers and leukemia, it predicted. That’s far below the tens of thousands many claimed were fatally stricken.

Conflicting findings

Researchers found that thyroid cancer rates skyrocketed among people who were under 18 at the time of the accident, but noted more than 99 percent survive after treatment.

They said there is no convincing evidence of birth defects or reduced fertility, and most of the general population suffered such low radiation doses that the scientists decided not to make predictions about deaths, except to say that some increase might be expected.

Venyamin Khudolei, director of the Center for Independent Ecological Expertise at the government-founded Russian Academy of Sciences, disagrees with the findings.

In the part of Russia most heavily hit by the fallout, mortality rates have risen nearly 4 percent since the explosion, indicating the Chernobyl toll in Russia alone could be calculated at 67,000 people, he said. His findings are cited by the environmental watchdog group Greenpeace, which is to issue a report on Chernobyl’s consequences on Tuesday.

Omer ElNaiem, a spokesman at Greenpeace International’s main office in Amsterdam, said the report will use data from various sources, some hitherto unpublished, which “will indicate a rise” over the U.N. report’s casualty estimates.

Other specialists point to studies that show increases in everything from schizophrenia among the traumatized liquidators to breast cancer.

Researchers trying to determine death tolls — and predict radiation fatalities still to come — don’t have an easy task. Soviet-era attempts to cover up the chaotic and often inhumane response made it difficult to track down victims. Lists were incomplete, and Soviet authorities later forbade doctors to cite “radiation” on death certificates.

The rural regions affected are impoverished and unemployment is high. Alcohol abuse is rampant, diets poor. It’s hard to distinguish Chernobyl-related health problems from a more general post-Soviet malaise, scientists said.

Could have been ‘worse’

“I’m sure we’ll see claims of thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of deaths, but again we checked, we checked all the research, all the files,” Didier Louvat, a radiation waste specialist with the International Atomic Energy Agency, said by telephone from Vienna.

“The explosion was very concentrated around the facility and the fallout was spread in great plumes that went high into the atmosphere and crossed Europe, diffusing the concentration. … It could have been much worse.”

But radiation infects a vast stretch of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia — in the soil, in the berries and mushrooms, in the firewood needed to heat homes.

Oleksandr Nabok, 21, has never been near the nuclear station, about 60 miles from his village, but he was recently diagnosed with thyroid cancer. “I never thought about Chernobyl until I got this news,” he said in a Kiev hospital as he awaited surgery.

He is one of more than 5 million people who live in areas deemed contaminated but habitable, far removed from the villages circling the plant that were considered so irradiated they were bulldozed under mounds of dirt. There, isotopes with half-lives of 24,390 years came to rest.

In Mr. Nabok’s village, specialists say, the biggest concern was radioactive iodine.

People suffer from a lack of iodine in this region, so when the radioactive iodine was released, their thyroids gobbled it up; children’s thyroid glands work most actively, putting them at greatest risk. Many ingested the iodine in milk from cows that had grazed on radiated fields.

Thyroid cancer rife

Accounts vary, but specialists agree that between 4,000 and 5,000 people, children when the explosion happened, have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer in Ukraine and Belarus — making it the single biggest Chernobyl-related medical problem. At least nine have died. Before the accident, the illness was so rare that in most years only about 10 children were diagnosed with it.

The numbers keep growing. The main spurt was expected to come around this time, but no one knows whether this is the beginning of the peak or its end.

The U.N. report found that high anxiety levels persist, and may be growing among people such as Mrs. Stanyuk who live in contaminated zones. “It is scary, you try not to worry about it,” Valentyna Yanduk said.

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