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Chernobyl and public health

BMJ 1998; 316 doi: (Published 28 March 1998) Cite this as: BMJ 1998;316:952

The nuclear industry should fund an international foundation to learn from Chernobyl

  1. Keith Baverstock, Radiation scientist
  1. WHO European Centre for Environment and Health, Rome, Italy

    In 1992, when the first effects of the Chernobyl accident on the prevalence of thyroid cancer in children were reported,1 they were met with scepticism by the radiological community. 2 3 Some of this scepticism was undoubtedly scientific (“iodine-131 has a low carcinogenic potential”), though some was not. These reservations have now mostly been resolved by re-examination of the data on the relation of exposure to x rays and thyroid cancer and a realisation of just how many children were exposed. It is a cautionary tale of how scientific instinct can mislead: help could have been provided more quickly had it not been for this debate. Nevertheless, similar debates are now obscuring our ability to learn longer term lessons from Chernobyl and provide further help to its victims.

    Some sceptics, relieved that the fallout had not originated and fallen in western Europe or America, where populations are litigious, were reluctant to concede that environmental sources of radiation could be strongly associated with serious disease. Childhood thyroid cancer has a very low spontaneous incidence in most countries (<1/1 000 000/year). Thus, the appearance of several tens of cases in the region round Chernobyl from a population of under half a million children, giving relative annual incidences of ≥100/1 000 000, should have left little room for doubt that something was seriously amiss.

    Today there is little dispute that a real increase in thyroid cancer occurred among young people in Belarus, …

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