Chernobyl's cancer world record

BBC News, Tuesday 23 October 2001, 10:14 GMT 11:14 UK

The nuclear disaster at Chernobyl has produced the biggest group of cancers ever from a single incident, according to UK and US scientists.

Almost 2,000 cases of thyroid cancer have resulted from the reactor explosion at the Ukrainian power station 15 years ago.

Researchers predict that the number of cancers is sure to rise further in years to come.

Another study suggests that workers who were sent in to try to clean up the plant following the explosion are at a significantly increased risk of lung cancer.

All of them had evidence of inhaled radioactive dust in their lungs.

Estimates suggest that the reactor fire at Chernobyl released large quantities of radiactive isotopes of iodine into the environment.

Children need iodine during their development, and it is taken up by the thyroid gland, so this is where the radioactive material accumulated, and delivered a highly concentrated dose to the tissues there.

Thyroid cancer following exposure of this sort may take time to develop.

Treatable illness

Dr Elaine Ron, from the US National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, said: “The elevated risk of thyroid cancer appears to continue throughout life, but there is some indication that the risk may be highest 15 to 19 years after exposure.”

Fortunately, thyroid cancer is a very treatable disease, so few of the 2,000 who have developed it as a result of Chernobyl have died.

Professor Dillwyn Williams, from the Strangeways Research Laboratory at Cambridge University, said: “Few of the patients have died, but help is still needed.

“Exposure to isotopes of iodine give the thyroid more than 1,000 times the average dose to the rest of the body.”

Children, he said, were particularly sensitive because the gland was still growing.

Five million exposed

It is thought that as many as five million people were exposed to some sort of health hazard following the Chernobyl disaster.

The latest Russian research, carried out by Victor Chizhikov at the Institute of Pulmonology in Moscow, followed reports of chronic respiratory problems among clean-up workers.

It looked for molecular abnormalities in the lung lining of more than 40 of these workers which might indicate an increased risk of lung cancer.

One type of abnormality was found in more than 60% of the volunteers, and just under a quarter had another.

The majority of the group were smokers, but Mr Chizhikov said they represented a “distinct spectrum of molecular alterations” and a “high risk” of lung cancer.