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U.N. Chernobyl report downplays health issues

Since its release in September 2005, the U.N. sponsored Chernobyl Forum report has drawn controversy because of its conclusion that the health effects of Chernobyl weren’t as dire as once predicted.  Dr. Burton Bennett  explains the study's findings to NBC’s Preston Mendenhall.
/ Source: NBC News

Since its release in September 2005, the Chernobyl Forum report, compiled by over 100 experts, six U.N. agencies and the governments of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, has drawn controversy in its conclusion that the health effects of Chernobyl weren’t as dire as once predicted.

Dr. Burton Bennett, an American expert on radiation and the chairman of the Chernobyl Forum, explains the findings in an interview with NBC’s Preston Mendenhall.

Preston Mendenhall: What are the general findings of the report?

Burton Bennett: The report was intended to settle a lot of lingering controversies about the consequences of the accident.

The report substantiated previous international reviews: except for the workers on the night of the accident and many children who contracted thyroid cancers, most residents of contaminated areas and workers received relatively low doses.

These doses are such that they would not expect to have a high degree of health consequences over the remainder of their lifetimes. We don’t expect a serious increase in cancers and other diseases.

Are there no consequences of radiation exposure?
The main consequence of the accident is thyroid cancer in children. This has led to almost 5,000 thyroid cancer cases. The thyroid cancer is treatable, and only nine children have died from thyroid cancer thus far. That is the main health consequence of the accident.

The findings come as a surprise to many average people who have been evacuated and relocated from the Chernobyl region. What about the medical community?
Radiation is one of the most studied toxic substances that there is. We know a lot about radiation, what it does and what it doesn’t do.

In general, the Chernobyl accident caused low doses to the surrounding population, including evacuees and also the workers in the contaminated areas.

The report has not been well received among Chernobyl victims, who blame many of their health problems on the accident.
I would certainly have sympathy for their health problems. In this situation, unless you’ve had a high dose, I don’t believe that the effects are caused by radiation. There is a lot of ill health and poor conditions throughout the Chernobyl region, in both contaminated and uncontaminated areas.

There is a high level of poor diet and inadequate health care. But it’s not right to attribute all of these effects and problems to radiation alone.

The Chernobyl Forum has tried to tell the people and also the governments they shouldn’t worry so much about low doses of radiation. They should think about their lifestyle, stop smoking, limit alcohol consumption, and they should get a better diet. They should be allowed to take control of their lives and have a brighter future.

Is it really all about diet?
This was a traumatic disruption of their families and their lives. Many people were relocated. This led to high unemployment and difficulties in getting their lives going forward again.

I believe that people had been led to believe that they are victims of the accident. This is a rather negative outlook for all of them. [Instead], they should be treated as survivors of this horrendous event.

There is a lot of apprehension about radiation and its effects. People don’t understand it and don’t know what radiation exposure causes, so there is a lot of worry and probably a lot of misinformation about what to expect. The worry itself causes stress and probably contributes in some degree to the ill health in the region.

This report should be good news, but some aren’t taking it as such.
I think many people still want to sensationalize the accident to attract attention to the area and to gain humanitarian support. This has, perhaps, in the past driven some of the politicians and the governments in the region but it’s clear to most now that the limited resources have to be focused and used in priority areas.

We should support people to develop self-help projects and other measures that will move them forward in their environment and in their economy.