Twenty years later, the Chernobyl disaster still affects children’s health
By John Varoli
CHERNOBYL, Ukraine, 25 April 2006 – On the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, UNICEF is urging the governments of countries still affected by fallout from the radioactive blast to take a simple yet effective step to save and improve lives.
A lack of iodine in the diets of children living in the contaminated region has made them more susceptible to thyroid cancer and iodine deficiency disorders. These children could be protected through universal salt iodization, which costs just 4 cents per person.
“Iodine deficiency during pregnancy affects fetal brain development,” said UNICEF Deputy Director Kul Gautam. “It is the world’s leading cause of mental retardation. It is a danger to pregnant women and young children. Even mild forms of iodine deficiency can lower the IQ level of children by 10 to 15 per cent, leading to poor performance in school and reduced productivity as adults.”
The ‘Chernobyl generation’
UNICEF also hopes to remind the wider world that children here continue to suffer even though they were born years after the event.
“Chernobyl – but that was 20 years ago,” remarked Irina, a young woman in St. Petersburg, Russia, upon hearing of a recent photography workshop organized by UNICEF for children from the devastated area. “Why would UNICEF possibly be concerned with Chernobyl today? It’s all in the past.” Unfortunately, Irina’s opinion is all too common in Russia.
The Bryansk region, which includes parts of Ukraine and Belarus, was hit hard by fallout from the radioactive cloud after an accident on 26 April 1986 blew apart Reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, then a Soviet republic.
The explosion and ensuing fire spewed radiation over a territory the size of Germany and forced the abandonment of 400 communities in this formerly fertile agricultural region. Hundreds of thousands of people were relocated, and nearly 600,000 so-called ‘liquidators’, many working with no protection, sacrificed their health to contain and seal the fiery reactor, as well as clean the contaminated area.
“One thing is absolutely clear. Increased incidence of childhood thyroid cancer caused by radioactive iodine fallout has been the most dramatic health impact of Chernobyl,” said Mr. Gautam. “There are over 4,000 cases of thyroid cancer affecting the ‘Chernobyl generation’ of children. But cancer is only the tip of the iceberg. Widespread iodine deficiency in the vicinity of Chernobyl and other parts of Belarus, Russian Federation and Ukraine is leading to a whole generation of children growing up potentially brain-damaged.”
Children are especially vulnerable
Today, the plight of most of the 6 million people who live in or near contaminated areas is not considered dire enough to warrant evacuation. Although hundreds of towns and villages are deemed habitable, the surrounding fields, lake beds and forest floors that provide them with food and water remain polluted.
Nearly all Bryansk residents suffer health problems, to which children are especially vulnerable. The greatest source of apprehension, however, remains fear of the genetic defects that might affect future generations. Young people, especially those planning to have children, try to move as far away as possible. For economic reasons however, few have that option.
“Adults think that 20 years have passed, and the problems are over,” said Lubov Olefirenko, head of the Russian Children’s Fund in Bryansk. “So it’s up to the children to keep the fight alive.”