Living longterm in radioactively contaminated areas damages our health
By Cindy Folkers
A growing body of evidence supports a grim reality: that living in radioactively contaminated areas over multiple years results in harmful health impacts, particularly during pregnancy.
This is borne out in a recent study by Anton V. Korsakov, Emilia V. Geger, Dmitry G. Lagerev, Leonid I. Pugach and Timothy A. Mousseau, that shows a higher frequency of birth defects amongst people living in Chernobyl-contaminated areas (as opposed to those living in areas considered uncontaminated) in the Bryansk region of Russia.
Because the industry and governments are pushing to spend more money on new nuclear reactors — or to keep the old ones running longer — they have been forced to come up with a deadly workaround to surmount the strongest argument against nuclear power: its potential for catastrophic accidents.
Even the nuclear industry and the governments willing to do its bidding understand that you cannot really clean up after a nuclear catastrophe. For example, in Japan, where the March 2011 nuclear disaster has left lands radioactively contaminated potentially indefinitely, there is an attempt to mandate that people return to live in these areas by claiming there are no “discernible” health impacts from doing so.
Bodies that are supposed to protect health and regulate the nuclear industry, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the International Commission on Radiological Protection and Nuclear Regulatory Commission are raising recommended public exposure limits, considering halting evacuations from radiation releases, and encouraging people to live on, and eat from, contaminated land.
The public justification for continued nuclear energy use is, ostensibly, to address the climate crisis. The reality is more likely a desperate last-ditch effort by the nuclear industry to remain relevant, while in some countries the nuclear energy agenda remains inextricably linked to nuclear weapon programs.
Forcing people to live on and consume produce grown from radioactively contaminated land is contrary to scientific evidence indicating that these practices harm humans and all animals, especially over the long-term. By the time these health impacts are unearthed, decades later, the false narratives of “harmless low radiation doses” and “no discernible impact” have solidified, covering up the painful reality that should be a touchstone informing our debate over nuclear power.
The recent joint study, whose implementation, says Korsakov, would not have happened without the support and efforts of co-author Mousseau, found that birth defects like polydactyly (having more than five fingers or toes), and multiple congenital malformations (including those that are appearing for the first time — called de novo), were “significantly higher… in newborns in regions with elevated radioactive, chemical and combined contamination.”
Uniquely, Korsakov also examines areas contaminated by both Chernobyl radioactivity and industrial chemicals. Multiple congenital malformations (MCM) were much higher in areas of combined contamination, indicating an additive and potentially synergistic effect between pollutants for these birth defects.
Congenital malformations (CM) are thought to originate in the first trimester of pregnancy and represent a main cause of global disease burden. They are considered “indicators of adverse factors in the environment,” including radioactive pollution, and can afflict numerous organs (heart, brain, lungs, bones, intestines) with physical abnormalities and metabolic disorders. Counted among these are clubfoot, hernias, heart and neural tube defects, cleft palate and lip, and Down syndrome.
CMs are the leading cause of infant mortality in many developed nations, accounting for 20% of U.S. infant deaths. For those living past infancy, the effects can be lifelong. While a number of CMs are obvious early in life, some may not be identified until later, even into adulthood. Countries of low- and middle-income are affected disproportionately.
In the Bryansk region of Russia, birth defects were examined over the 18-year period from 2000-2017. For areas contaminated with radiation alone, dose estimations from Chernobyl radiation (released from the 1986 nuclear catastrophe) ranged from 0.6 mSv to 2.1 mSv per year, while in areas contaminated with radiation and chemicals, dose ranges were 1.2 to 2.0 mSv per year.
As the Bryansk study authors point out, “[n]early all types of hereditary defects can be found at doses as low a [sic] 1–10 mSv indicating that current radiation risk models are inadequate for low dose environments.”
In comparison, Japan and the U.S. maintain that there is little risk to resettling or inhabiting areas contaminated by nuclear catastrophe where estimated doses would range from 5-20 mSv/year. Yet harm was found among Bryansk populations exposed to doses far lower than the much higher ones proclaimed “livable” by nuclear proponents.
One explanation for the disconnect between the expected and actual health effects is an underestimate of the impact of ingesting or inhaling manmade radioactive isotopes, particularly beta emitters, a large source of exposure following radiation releases from nuclear power catastrophes.
A number of these isotopes mimic nutrients that our bodies need such as calcium (radiostrontium) and potassium (radiocesium), so our body doesn’t know to avoid them. Of course, nuclear proponents recognize that economic recovery of polluted places will be difficult without being able to grow, sell and consume food that might be contaminated with isotopes that give off this radiation,.
Korsakov et al. point to yet another explanation for the disconnect — the assumption that dose reconstruction models properly fit all realistic exposures. When experts estimate doses they often do so without adequate knowledge of local culture and habits. Therefore, they fail to capture variations in exposure pathways, creating enormous errors in dose reconstruction. As a starting point, radiation science would be better served by directly measuring contamination levels where people actually live, play, breathe and eat.
But it seems dose models also fail to adequately represent the damage done to fetuses and neonates, not least because damage can be random (stochastic) making it difficult to predict. Stochastic health impacts include cancer and other genetic damage, and may be severe even at low doses. During pregnancy, one hit from radiation could damage or destroy cells meant to form entire organs, making accounting for stochastic impacts during fetal development extremely important — especially as fetal tissue collects some radionuclides in greater amounts than maternal tissue.
Health impacts in the Bryansk region could be a result both of direct radiation exposure during pregnancy and of cumulative impact over a “series of generations (genetic load)” raising the specter of heritability of genetic damage. Past studies have indicated that radiation damage can be heritable — passing from parents to offspring; that living in environments of elevated natural background radiation will increase mutations and disease; that the ability to withstand radiation doses appears to diminish as continually-exposed generations progress; and that doses from catastrophic releases should be accounted for across generations, not just in the generation initially exposed.
These currently sparse, yet growing data, support long-held conclusions that humans do not differ significantly from every other animal and plant — they, too, suffer heritable damage from radiation.
The Korsakov study projects that overall, multiple congenital malformations will increase in the next few years in the contaminated regions. Increases in birth defects are occurring despite access to free in-depth medical exams for pregnant women residing in areas of higher contamination and, if warranted, pregnancy termination. Such access has apparently greatly decreased the number of stilbirths in the region, as did a similar program at the end of the 1990s in Belarus, the country which bore the brunt of radioactive Chernobyl contamination. But even with such programs, overall birth defects have increased in the contaminated areas in Russia.
So not only is it unhealthy to live in radiologically-contaminated areas, attempts at mitigating the effects, particularly those on pregnancy, have limited impact. Encouraging, or worse yet, forcing people to live in contaminated areas and eat contaminated food, is foolishly cruel (particularly to people of reproductive age who may face wrenching decisions about wanted pregnancies) and not in the interest of public health.
Meanwhile, the continued use of nuclear energy that has forced us into this Faustian bargain in the name of mitigating climate change, is both unnecessary and downright harmful.
Headline photo: Kupuvate, Ukraine – September 21, 2016: Self settler woman in Kupovate village located in Chernobyl exclusion area, by Fotokon/Shutterstock.