Green Cross study on long-term psychosocial consequences of Chernobyl nuclear disaster

Findings from a Green Cross-backed study on the psychosocial impacts of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster have been released on today’s 27th anniversary of the nuclear plant meltdown that, to this day, still affects 10 million people.

On 26 April 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster took place, contaminating a large part of Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and the Russian Federation. In addition to the radiation exposure, and resultant cancer risk, this disaster also posed other health and mental stresses on affected people. The main medical effects are mostly psychological, such as permanent mental stress disorder, post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety.

These findings are the result of the study conducted by Green Cross Russia, Belarus and Ukraine under the guidance of Dr. Jonathan M. Samet, director of the Institute for Global Health at the University of Southern California (USA) in collaboration with local partners.

“Depression, anxiety and suicide are critical elements identified in populations living in contaminated areas or removed,” said Maria Vitagliano, Director of Green Cross International’s Social and Medical (SOCMED) programme. “We are putting in place methods for early detection of suicidal tendencies, using family clubs and therapeutic camps, as well as strategic partnerships with local governments to support cases of depression.”

Mrs Vitagliano, in Ukraine for the 27th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, said the research results on the long-term mental health consequences of the Chernobyl nuclear have helped launch therapeutic measures to improve living conditions of the affected population.

She added most studies found that there was also an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases, blood problems and child birth.

To measure the long-term psychological impacts caused by the Chernobyl disaster, two sources have been used for the Green Cross-backed study: the results of research published in the scientific literature, and information gathered during discussions held in Kiev, Ukraine, in March 2011 and July 2012 by the Institute of International Sociology of Kiev with focus groups, including affected people.

In summary, the focus groups showed that the Chernobyl disaster had an impact on the lives of all people groups represented (as well as evacuees left behind). Although health issues were a major concern, the participants in the focus groups have cautiously welcomed the assistance available. They also expressed concern about the stigma created by the Chernobyl disaster and its impact on their children and grandchildren.

To estimate the number of people exposed to radiation by the nuclear disaster is complicated. Emphasis was put on radiation exposure, without forgetting the stresses resulting from this disaster: evacuation, lack of food, loss of employment, and stigma.

The Green Cross-supported study made the assumption that all these factors affected different groups, but overlapping. Thus, some may have been under stress due to the loss of their employment and income, although escaped significant radiation exposure. Children born after the disaster and whose parents were evacuated, may be stigmatized and suffer socio-economic hardship. That is why there are different types of populations with different combinations of exposure. Considering all combinations, the study authors conclude that 10 million people have been affected.

Nutritional measures to reduce radionuclides in food are complemented by the provision of more vitamins and minerals for the population. It was, for example, found that the absorption of folic acid reduced the neural tube defects and nutritional deficiencies increase the risk of blood problems such as anemia. To combat the problem of stigma, Green Cross representatives are contacting known as athletes families involved opinion leaders, to change the whole public perception.

The study approach consisted mainly of cross-sectional studies in connection with several longitudinal studies. In a first step, 50 publications were considered in the light of their findings on anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorders, wellbeing and cognition. From more than 800 studies of the Chernobyl disaster and various diseases, 18 were selected for further screening.

Nearly 10 million people are exposed to in their lifetime radioactive pollution. Currently, persistent low fallout enters into organisms through food consumed daily. Through Green Cross’s social and medical programme, supported by Green Cross Switzerland, the organization is committed to controlling the damage resulting from industrial and military disasters, and the toxic waste from the Cold War. Green Cross strives to improve the quality of life of people affected  by contamination, as well to promote sustainable development along the lines of cooperation rather than confrontation.

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Nathalie Gysi
Green Cross Switzerland
Telephone: +41-44-499-1310

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