Health effects assessed in Belarus

1 April 2000

Belarus, which took the brunt of the fallout from the 1986 Chernobyl accident, is facing rising levels of infertility and genetic damage, according to researchers at the Radiation Medicine Institute in Minsk.

“Science cannot yet assess the consequences of the Chernobyl accident, but it is plain that a demographic catastrophe has occurred in Belarus,” Vladislav Ostapenko, head of the Institute, said recently.

Thousands of cases of thyroid cancer, rare in areas not subject to high radiation levels, have been recorded in Belarus’s ‘risk zone,’ where a million people still live. High levels have now been observed among teenagers.

“It is clear that we are seeing genetic changes, especially among those who were less than six years of age when subjected to radiation,” Ostapenko said.

“These people are now starting families. We are seeing problems of infertility in this generation, similar to the sort of observations we made in animals subjected to similar radiation.” He noted that seven years after the accident, mortality rates were exceeding birth rates. Girls in affected areas were showing five times the normal rate of deformity in their reproductive systems and boys three times the norm. Each year, 2500 births were recorded with genetic abnormalities and 500 pregnancies were terminated after testing.

Gennady Lazyuk, head of a state institute for hereditary diseases, admitted that the situation was complicated by the problems associated with the post-Soviet decline.

“Of course this is a complex problem and includes low living standards, alcoholism and poor nutrition,” he said.

  However, he pointed out that in contaminated areas the increase in genetic abnormalities is more than twice that in uncontaminated areas.

An IAEA delegation visited Minsk in mid-February to consider possible co-operation with Belarus. Talks with the State Committee for Problems of the Consequences of the Chernobyl Catastrophe covered the possible uses of nuclear technologies. This included IAEA funding for a project for the industrial production of food-quality vegetable oil from rape grown on radiation-polluted lands.

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