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Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Summer 99 > Article

Chernobyl's Legacy
by Catherine Gianaro

Godzilla rampaging through Japan in the films of the 1970s helped create a myth of the nuclear age: Radiation exposure will mutate a creature to a thousand times its size.

That may be something of an exaggeration, but an 80-fold increase in thyroid cancer isn't.

For nearly 10 years, Cham Dallas, associate professor and director of UGA's interdisciplinary toxicology program, and his colleagues have been examining the Chernobyl nuclear plant area, where the world's largest and most widespread radionuclide release occurred in 1986.

Since first covered in Research Reporter (November 1992), the team composed of American, Russian and Ukrainian scientists has been working to assess nuclear contamination levels and their environmental effects.

The dramatic increase in cancer was one of them. Dallas and a team of Russian researchers are studying several hundred radiation-induced thyroid cancer victims, some of whom are undergoing intensive genetic screening. The scientists specifically are interested in whether radiation exposure caused any changes in the DNA sequence.

More than 200 times more radiation was released at Chernobyl than during the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings combined. That's why it took less than half the time for thyroid cancer to appear in residents of the Chernobyl area compared with the Japanese. The research team found that thyroid cancer increased 7,900 percent near Chernobyl.

"The real tragedy is that most of these [thyroid cancer] cases were preventable," Dallas said. Radiation-induced thyroid cancer is completely evaded if iodine tablets are taken within 12 hours of exposure. "The Soviet Union didn't tell anyone [of the fallout] for three days," he said. "There were 2 million people living in areas that were exposed to radiation. They were probably sitting on their balconies watching the reactors burn."

The massive amounts of radiation immediately killed 32 plant workers and firefighters. According to Dallas, the Soviet government sent in 600,000 workers to clean up the spill without the proper equipment or training. The cleanup crew, called liquidators, have been dying of acute radiation syndrome.

In another study, Dallas is working with Ukrainian scientists who are tracking the physical condition of 200 liquidators, looking at hormone and enzyme levels, biochemical changes in the blood and lung capacity.

Scientists found that, after only five years, patients in the study suffered such a dramatic decline in lung function that it was difficult to maintain life. "Their systems are shutting down at an accelerated rate," he said.

Finally, Dallas is helping researchers from the Ukraine, Texas Tech and UGA's Savannah River Ecology Laboratory conduct gene sequencing tests on rodents and fish within the contaminated area. There's a distinct lack of toxicological effects in the animals despite the fact they registered the highest levels of radioactivity ever recorded among living organisms, Dallas said. He attributes the high radioactivity level in the animals to "simply because they didn't leave."

Dallas presented much of his research at the United Nations' environmental conference this past April. And to mark the 10th anniversary in 1996, CNN filmed a one-hour documentary of the Chernobyl disaster, focusing on the research conducted by Dallas and his colleagues.

Dallas currently is negotiating with Discovery Channel to narrate a 13-part television series on nuclear, chemical and biological war. "[Our government] is expecting it," he said. "They're gearing up for it. The use of the weapons is imminent.

"The public is not very well informed about the consequences of biological war," he said. "Once people have more information about catastrophic events, their level of anxiety decreases."

Misperception has caused problems for the people of Kiev, the capital of Ukraine approximately 60 miles south of Chernobyl's damaged reactor. The city is experiencing what scientists are calling the Chernobyl Syndrome: Birthrates have decreased drastically - 38 percent - because women are afraid the radiation exposure will cause defects in their unborn children.

"People expect to see birth defects," Dallas said. "It's ingrained in our culture." But that's not what the scientists found. "The reality is that after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there were no birth defects, or very few. That's also what we found at Chernobyl. So [the decrease in the birthrate] is not due to radiation exposure, it's due to fear."

The Ukrainian government still operates one reactor at Chernobyl, which supplies a substantial portion of electricity and jobs for Kiev. But the G7 countries the world's top seven industrialized nations have demanded Chernobyl's closing. A deal has yet to be made. The G7 has offered to pay $3.1 billion of the $4 billion needed to build a gas plant in order to shut down Chernobyl by the year 2000. Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma is waiting for the entire $4 billion, claiming that the Ukrainian government is devoting more money to Chernobyl-related matters than to its national defense, Dallas said.

"It takes a lot of money and the funds just aren't there," he said. "They are cleaning up the worst areas. Some people, mostly elderly, are even coming back."

To Dallas, it's important to learn as much as possible from the Chernobyl disaster. "We may have a Chernobyl in America some day," he said. "Either by a nuclear accident or more likely from the use of a terrorist nuclear weapon. We need to know what the consequences are."

After a decade of research, Dallas has some encouraging findings about the effects of radiation exposure: "The good news," he said, "is that life is far more resilient than we thought."

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