Up to 10 million people exposed to radioactive contamination from Chernobyl

From 23 to 27 April, a study trip to regions affected by the Chernobyl disaster 30 years ago took delegates to the area of Slavutych and Pakul, where Green Cross is operating preventive healthcare projects. Just a few kilometres from Pakul, participants visited the spot where the village of Lokot’kiv stood until 1986, today a place where no residents are permitted to live. Lokot’kiv was so severely contaminated with radiation from the Chernobyl reactor disaster that the village had to be abandoned and the residents evacuated.

According to a review of reports and sources about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, up to 9.9 million people still live in contaminated areas. In Belarus, between 1.6 and 3.7 million people are exposed to radioactive contamination; in Russia the numbers are between 1.8 and 2.7 million, and in Ukraine between 1.1 and 3.5 million. This was the result of a Green Cross study carried out under the direction of Professor Jonathan M. Samet, Director of the USC Institute for Global Health at the University of Southern California (USC), in cooperation with local partners in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova and accompanied by Professor Theodor Abelin in Bern.

“The 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe that exposed some 10 million people to nuclear radiation in the surrounding countries has estimated costs of roughly $700 billion over the past 30 years, according to our extensive review of the literature,” said Samet. “Health represents the largest proportion of the indirect costs. These costs greatly exceed those directly related to the plant because this price tag spans a lifetime and possibly even reaches to the next generation. Neuropsychological effects, such as depression, are among the most widespread and expensive of the long-term consequences.”

Click here for the full study.

Visits to families gave the participants an insight into Green Cross’ “Health for the Future” and “Health Monitoring for Children” projects, which encompass all aspects of chronic pathologies in children. The development of methods to avoid and treat these diseases prevents severe disability in the long term. Mobile teams of doctors and specialists visit the local population, thus reaching families with virtually no other access to medical care. By founding women’s cooperatives, Green Cross also combines the areas of health and education with socioeconomic components, to protect the population from further health damage and social decay. The women’s cooperatives and the provision of micro-loans enable women to escape the spiral of poverty, unemployment and hopelessness, offering an additional source of income for a substantial and lasting improvement in living conditions for the whole family. With its mother-and-child projects, Green Cross offers mothers and their babies medical and psychological care and treatment as well as nutrition courses to help them deal with contaminated foods. This is because the local people are continually exposed to harmful low-level radiation in their daily diet as a result of the contaminated soil.

Although the Chernobyl disaster has been overshadowed by more recent incidents, it remains present and tangible in the minds and bodies of the people who have to live in the contaminated regions. The more recent disaster in Fukushima, Japan shows us that the environment and energy resources demand closer attention and immediate action. It is imperative that the international community work together on the development and use of renewable energy, and the enhancement of energy efficiency, in order to phase-out the exploitation of dangerous and unsustainable energy sources.

Learning from Chernobyl
Government representatives and experts from Japan are particularly interested in learning how to grow vegetables in contaminated areas and how the correct preparation of foods can reduce radioactive contamination. Green Cross Japan is currently working with Green Cross Switzerland to gather information to distribute to the Japanese population about how to handle contaminated foods. Measures to implement the effective decontamination of the radioactive soil are also being examined.

Since 1995, Green Cross has organised four-week therapy camps for children and young people in Russia, Belarus and the Ukraine. To enhance the local connection in the respective countries, the camps are held in an uncontaminated and near-natural environment. The provision of medical and psychological care as well as a healthy diet during the four-week stay strengthens the immune system and reduces radiation exposure by 30 to 80 per cent in each case.

The explosion of the reactor in Chernobyl in 1986 caused extensive contamination in Belarus, Russia, Moldova and the Ukraine, affecting millions of people. The consequences of the disaster will continue to have a major impact on the health and lives of the population concerned for several decades. The collapse of the former Soviet system has made the situation even worse, leading to widespread poverty and social exclusion, particularly in contaminated and remote regions. In many cases, the affected children and their families are still left to fend for themselves.

For further information, please contact Maria Vitagliano, Director of the International Social and Medical Care Programme, at Maria.Vitagliano@greencross.ch.