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Paul Brown, environment correspondent
26 April 2000
The Chernobyl disaster will cause 50,000 new cases of thyroid cancer among young people living in the worst-affected region, World Health Organisation researchers say.
The figures show that in Gomel, Belarus, 36.4% of children aged under four on April 26, 1986 - the day of the disaster -- can expect to develop thyroid cancer.
This percentage is much higher than was originally expected, as well as being well above rates following previous exposures to nuclear fallout -- for example among Pacific islanders exposed to American atmospheric tests.
Researchers believe that one explanation is that people in the region suffer from a deficiency of iodine, which is essential to the working of the thyroid gland. Young children exposed to radioactive iodine from Chernobyl fallout would have absorbed large quantities to make up the deficiency and as a result got a large concentrated dose in their thyroids.
A second, more general, report on the effects of Chernobyl released by the UN yes terday, predicted that that the worst was still to come for more than 7m people affected by the disaster.
"Chernobyl is a word we would all like to erase from our memory," said the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, in a foreword to the report.
But he added that "more than 7m of our fellow human beings do not have the luxury of forgetting. They are still suffering, every day, as a result of what happened."
Mr Annan said the exact number of victims may never be known, but that 3m children require treatment and "many will die prematurely".
The thyroid paper by Dr Elisabeth Cardis from the Lyon-based International Agency for Research on Cancer -- part of the WHO - clearly shocked the 12 researchers involved. It is "very much hoped" they say, that their calculations are wrong, but add that the figures provide the best estimate at present.
The study says that whichever way the calculations are done, "if the current trends of risk continue, a considerable number of cases is to be expected among those exposed as very young children".
Based on a comparison with the number of thyroid cases among British children, the researchers found a dramatic rise in cancers among infants living in Gomel at the time of the accident.
In a population of 141,068 children under four, less than six cases would have been expected - in fact in the first 10 years there were 131. Over their lifetimes another 50,200 can expect to develop thyroid cancer, the researchers say.
They also predict that neighbouring areas can expect high figures. In Mogilev region 5% of the same age group can expect to suffer from the cancer -- a total of 5,023 people. In the three regions of Russia most affected -- Kaluga, Tula and Oryel -- around 1% of children will be affected, causing 3,699 more cases.
The high numbers in the Gomel region need some extra explanation in addition to the one provided by the severity of the fall-out from the accident, the researchers believe. One possible cause is a genetic susceptibility of the ethnic group in the area, along with the moderate iodine deficiency.
The paper suggests further work to try to isolate the cause, but in the meantime suggests widespread screening of young people to try to catch the cancers early. The researchers also suggest iodine supplements are given to all children in the region, to prevent a further health catastrophe in the event of a second accident at Chernobyl.
Tobias Munchmeyer, a Greenpeace nuclear expert, said that Britain should reconsider its financial support for further nuclear reactors in Ukraine. Last week Robin Cook, the foreign secretary, pledged money to help Ukraine complete reactors un finished since the break-up of the Soviet Union.
Mr Munchmeyer said: "These are absolutely shocking figures, the result of very careful analysis by world experts, and they come out far worse than we could have believed.
"The remaining operating Chernobyl reactor, number 3, is acknowledged to be dangerous and we call on Ukraine to shut it immediately. We also call on the G7 countries not to fund new nuclear reactors in Ukraine, but instead spend the money on sustainable energy solutions."