Lingering Issue: The Long-Term Effects of Radiation


A new report by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), released in the middle of the Japanese nuclear crisis (an apparent coincidence), shows that a quarter-century after the Chernobyl disaster we’re still dealing with its health impacts.

It turns out that children and teenagers who drank contaminated milk or ate contaminated diary products still face increased risk of thyroid cancer. These are long-term environmental and health impacts we’re talking about. Radiation, is deadly and it sticks around for decades, even generations. And the current scientific consensus is that there is no known safe level of radiation exposure, meaning any exposure carries an increased risk of cancer.

Japan is a wealthy, highly sophisticated nation. The Japanese are resilient people, and they will rebuild relatively quickly after the water recedes. But the long-term impact of the radiation release is an issue they (and the world) will be dealing with for decades. The Chernobyl disaster took place in 1986, and we’re still feeling the effects today. The city next to the Chernobyl plant, Pripyat, remains a ghost town, located inside an area known as the “Zone of Alienation.”

The nuclear supporters will say that taking potassium iodide is a way to mitigate exposure damage, but the study actually illustrates a couple of other problems worth noting. First is that governments in crisis will sacrifice truth and their populations for “the greater good.” The Soviets didn’t push people to take the potassium iodide, and they certainly didn’t warn them about the fact that radiation can accumulate in milk and other foods.

The study also illustrates how little the authorities knew (and know) about radiation. Apparently, it came as a surprise that “…increased risks associated with exposures to radioactive iodine have yet to show any sign of declining. Studies done in Japan after World War II suggested that the increased risks of thyroid cancer began to decline 30 years after the atomic explosions but remained above normal even 40 years later.” I’ve maintained for years that the “official” line on radiation has traditionally downplayed those types of long-term threats.

People were lied to about what distance from the site was “safe.” Some of the people in this study lived 90 miles from the disaster site, which the report says demonstrates “…the risks of eating or drinking contaminated foods among people who were exposed to little or no radioactive iodine from the immediate fallout.” That’s worth considering in the coming weeks as Japanese officials try to tell us that their “exposure zone” is limited to a few miles around the nuclear reactors.

The specifics of the study are one thing, and, of course, very important. But what the findings – 25 years later – tell us about governments and their response to such things could be a more significant take-away.

Here’s the NYT report on the NCI study:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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