Two people died during the accident itself; one was killed by the explosion and one suffered a heart attack. A third person died early the next morning from thermal burns (he was scalded by steam.) 237 people were initially diagnosed as suffering from acute radiation exposure and were hospitalized for treatment. Of those, 21 were estimated to have received doses ranging from 6 to 16 Gy (600 to 1600 RAD) over a short period of exposure. 20 of the 21 died in spite of intensive medical attention including some highly publicized bone marrow transplants.
Many of these highly exposed people were fire fighters who had severe thermal and radiation induced burns covering much of their body. These burns greatly complicated their treatment.
Twenty-one patients received acute doses of between 4 and 6 Gy (400 to 600 RAD). Of those 7 died. 55 people received acute doses between 2 and 4 Gy with one death. No deaths occurred among the 140 hospitalized people with exposures below 2 Gy.
Therefore, the immediate death toll from the accident was 31. Since the accident, 11 more deaths – possibly caused by radiation – have occurred among the population of highly exposed people, bringing the death toll to 42.
Some of the patients continue to require periodic treatment for radiation related illnesses. None of the highly exposed people were members of the general public; all received their exposure because of occupational responsibilities related to the nuclear plant or casualty control.
Long Term Radiation Effects
That answer rarely satisfies people who are curious about the effects of the accident. There have been far too many widely published stories about cancers, birth defects, thyroid disorders or other symptoms.
The best estimate of radiation related illness is that there have been approximately 500-600 excess cases of thyroid cancer, mostly in children, in the areas most affected by the radioactive fallout. As of early 1996, three deaths have been associated with this disease. There is some speculation among scientists that the potassium iodide pills given to prevent I-131 uptake by the thyroid may have contributed to the cancers. In areas where iodide was not administered, only two cancers have appeared.
There have been no excess leukemias, congenital abnormalities, adverse pregnancy outcomes or any other radiation induced disease in the general population.
Other Health Effects
There have been other health effects from the accident that are far more disturbing, mainly because they could have been prevented.
One effect has been an increase in stress related illnesses. The stress can be attributed to both fear of radiation and to the severe dislocation of people caused by government ordered evacuations.
Many of the peasants in the area near the Chernobyl power plant lived in the same village where their ancestors had lived for centuries. In some cases, they were evacuated without any belongings or other resources, even when there was little chance of being exposed to additional doses of radiation.
The fear of radiation is a natural result of years worth of intensive propaganda campaigns and a general lack of knowledge of recorded health effects. People generally fear things they do not understand, especially when they have been repeatedly told by authority figures that their fear is justified.
The level of reported stress or psychological impact also seems to have been affected by the government program designed to compensate the victims. People who claim to have been negatively affected are eligible for regular cash payments, medical care and for special assistance in housing and job placements. These incentives provide ample reason to blame poor health on radiation exposure from Chernobyl.
Poor diets have also contributed to poor health in the region near the accident site. Because of stringent safeguards against potentially contaminated food, locally grown food is often discarded despite the minimal potential health impact. This action ignores the fact that vitamin deficiencies are far more dangerous than slight contamination and the fact that “clean” food is often unavailable. In some ways, the overall effect is similar to that of concerned mothers who switched their children from apples to processed snack foods in the wake of the 60 Minutes episode on Alar.
Another disturbing fact is that as many as 200,000 women decided to abort healthy fetuses because of concern that they might have been damaged in the womb by minor radiation exposures. There is no evidence of any birth defects caused by the radiation levels experienced by expectant mothers after the accident.
There has been an increase in alcoholism following the accident. Here are some explanatory quotes from Piers Paul Read’s book, Ablaze: The Story of the Heros and Victims of Chernobyl. “The extra allowance paid for the purchase of clean food was spent entirely on drink – vodka when they could get it, on wine when they could not.” And, “The idea that vodka was an antidote to radiation was widely accepted even by educated people. . .”
The lesson that should be learned from the study of Chernobyl’s health effects is that many of the worst potential effects of a nuclear accident can be prevented. Decision makers, including those who make decisions for their families, need to make the effort to educate themselves about radiation health effects.
In the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident, scientists, national authorities and local officials all proved themselves woefully ignorant of the potential effects of radiation exposure and unable to make decisions that minimized the overall health effects on the population.
In defense of the people who made poor decisions following Chernobyl, their ignorance can be attributed to the fact that nuclear information has been considered a high level secret in many nations. There was little readily available information or guidance.
In cases where scientists or physicians were consulted for their recommendations, their perceived credibility had more to do with rank or official position than with their knowledge of radiation health effects. Deferring to rank rather than knowledge or experience can be dangerous, especially if the information sources are defensive about their ignorance.
Update: (May 6, 2012) During a recent conversation on Twitter someone who tweets under the pen name of @NoWarNow2011 recommended that I update this article. Though I have written many additional articles about Chernobyl and the long term health effects studies, I had forgotten about this 1996 article.
It is a good idea to take a good look at the information that has been learned in the 16 years since the original article was posted. I have not changed a single word above this update. Here are some revised numbers.
The number of immediate deaths – has not changed, it is still 28.
Among the population of highly exposed people, the number that was 11 in the article above is now 19 who “died in 1987-2004 of various causes not necessarily associated with radiation exposure”.
Exposures to the thyroid and the noted effects from those exposures have received a lot of attention. The UNSCEAR report on Chernobyl now says the following about thyroid exposures:
For the last two decades, attention has been focused on investigating the association between exposure caused by radionuclides released in the Chernobyl accident and late effects, in particular thyroid cancer in children. Doses to the thyroid received in the first few months after the accident were particularly high in those who were children and adolescents at the time in Belarus, Ukraine and the most affected Russian regions and drank milk with high levels of radioactive iodine. By 2005, more than 6,000 thyroid cancer cases had been diagnosed in this group, and it is most likely that a large fraction of these thyroid cancers is attributable to radioiodine intake. It is expected that the increase in thyroid cancer incidence due to the Chernobyl accident will continue for many more years, although the long-term increase is difficult to quantify precisely.
The executive summary of the UNSCEAR report, which was updated in 2010, includes the following final paragraph. It makes me feel pretty good about the accuracy of the assessment that I reported in 1996. It was pretty close to the truth as we know it today.
The accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986 was a tragic event for its victims, and those most affected suffered major hardship. Some of the people who dealt with the emergency lost their lives. Although those exposed as children and the emergency and recovery workers are at increased risk of radiation-induced effects, the vast majority of the population need not live in fear of serious health consequences due to the radiation from the Chernobyl accident. For the most part, they were exposed to radiation levels comparable to or a few times higher than annual levels of natural background, and future exposures continue to slowly diminish as the radionuclides decay. Lives have been seriously disrupted by the Chernobyl accident, but from the radiological point of view, generally positive prospects for the future health of most individuals should prevail.