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Chernobyl children seek answers

Laborers work on construction of the Soviet Union's Chernobyl nuclear power plant on July 1, 1975. The Chernobyl accident is the world's worst nuclear accident. The disaster sent a cloud of radioactive fallout over hundreds of thousands of square miles of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. The radioactive effects of the explosion were about 400 times more potent than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II.Laborers work on construction of the Soviet Union’s Chernobyl nuclear power plant on July 1, 1975. The Chernobyl accident is the world’s worst nuclear accident. The disaster sent a cloud of radioactive fallout over hundreds of thousands of square miles of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. The radioactive effects of the explosion were about 400 times more potent than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II.
The station came on-line in 1977, two years before this photo, and contained four reactors, each capable of producing 1,000 megawatts of electrical power.The station came on-line in 1977, two years before this photo, and contained four reactors, each capable of producing 1,000 megawatts of electrical power.
Reactor number four exploded on April 26, 1986, releasing large amounts of radiation into the atmosphere. More than 100,000 people were evacuated from their homes.Reactor number four exploded on April 26, 1986, releasing large amounts of radiation into the atmosphere. More than 100,000 people were evacuated from their homes.
People are scanned for radioactivity before evacuating the Ukraine in this undated photo.People are scanned for radioactivity before evacuating the Ukraine in this undated photo.
Three days after the explosion, on April 29, 1986, cranes are seen at the power plant. The disaster initially killed 32 people, but according to the United Nations, the explosion and fire that occurred affected, directly or indirectly, 9 million people because of the radioactive materials released into the atmosphere.Three days after the explosion, on April 29, 1986, cranes are seen at the power plant. The disaster initially killed 32 people, but according to the United Nations, the explosion and fire that occurred affected, directly or indirectly, 9 million people because of the radioactive materials released into the atmosphere.
In Finland, milk is tested by authorities for aftereffects of the radiation on April 30, 1986.In Finland, milk is tested by authorities for aftereffects of the radiation on April 30, 1986.
West German Customs officials closely screen goods, cars and people coming in from Eastern Europe on May 5, 1986. Radioactivity from the Chernobyl nuclear plant threatened to contaminate crops. West German Customs officials closely screen goods, cars and people coming in from Eastern Europe on May 5, 1986. Radioactivity from the Chernobyl nuclear plant threatened to contaminate crops.
A farmer in Sweden wears anti-atomic clothes as he sifts hay possibly contaminated by the radioactive cloud from Chernobyl in June 1986.A farmer in Sweden wears anti-atomic clothes as he sifts hay possibly contaminated by the radioactive cloud from Chernobyl in June 1986.
Construction crews build a containment wall around the damaged unit four reactor in August 1986. Construction crews build a containment wall around the damaged unit four reactor in August 1986.
Control panels of the destroyed fourth power block on April 14, 1998. Control panels of the destroyed fourth power block on April 14, 1998.
Twenty-seven years after the nuclear disaster, engineers work on April 26, 2013, to construct a colossal arch-shaped structure to permanently cover the exploded reactor.Twenty-seven years after the nuclear disaster, engineers work on April 26, 2013, to construct a colossal arch-shaped structure to permanently cover the exploded reactor.

  • More than 2 million people in Belarus were affected by the Chernobyl disaster
  • About 5 million people in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia received whole-body radiation
  • Several groups provide relief to kids who live in areas that received radioactive fallout
  • It is not possible to say that any particular illness was caused by Chernobyl radiation

(CNN) — Yulia Gorelik describes her 8-year-old son, Daniel, as “a very clever boy.” He plays “Fur Elise” with elegant ease on the piano and enjoys eating McDonald’s chicken nuggets.

Mother and son arrived in the United States this summer through an organization called Hope for Chernobyl’s Child. Gorelik had faith that American doctors could fix Daniel’s headaches, weakness and vertigo during their six-week stay.

“I have the hope that we can do something here to make him stronger, because he is intelligent, he is nice, but his body is weak,” Gorelik, 34, said in July.

From left, Yulia Gorelik, Daniel Gorelik and Maksim Adzinochanka, with Phillip and Jennifer Henning behind.
From left, Yulia Gorelik, Daniel Gorelik and Maksim Adzinochanka, with Phillip and Jennifer Henning behind.

The Goreliks live in a region called Gomel, Belarus, which was heavily hit with radioactive fallout from the worst nuclear accident the world has ever seen.

On April 26, 1986, explosions at a reactor at Chernobyl in Ukraine produced radiation effects almost 14 times greater than the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan and 400 times more powerful than the 1945 atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

More than 2 million people in Belarus were affected by the Chernobyl disaster, according to the World Bank. Two-thirds of the contamination from the accident fell in Belarus, diminishing the quality of life in the region.

Hope for Chernobyl’s Child helps 10 to 15 children living in Belarus find host families and dental and medical care in Washington state every summer. The organization also helps families on the ground in Belarus by delivering humanitarian aid.

A Tokyo Electric Power Co. worker describes the situation a year after the disaster at Fukushima to journalists on February 28. A Tokyo Electric Power Co. worker describes the situation a year after the disaster at Fukushima to journalists on February 28.
Members of the media suited up before they were allowed into the crippled Fukushima reactor site. It's the second time since the disaster that journalists have been allowed inside.Members of the media suited up before they were allowed into the crippled Fukushima reactor site. It’s the second time since the disaster that journalists have been allowed inside.
Journalists were shown the damage at the top of the No.3 reactor building of Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.Journalists were shown the damage at the top of the No.3 reactor building of Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
This general view shows Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s tsunami-crippled numbers 2, 3 and 4 reactor buildings at Fukushima.This general view shows Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s tsunami-crippled numbers 2, 3 and 4 reactor buildings at Fukushima.
Greenpeace activists hold black crosses. one reading "Fukushima" nuclear power plant and the other, "Chernobyl," at a protest in Bucharest March 5.Greenpeace activists hold black crosses. one reading “Fukushima” nuclear power plant and the other, “Chernobyl,” at a protest in Bucharest March 5.
Fukushima, one year later
Fukushima, one year later
Fukushima, one year later
Fukushima, one year later
Fukushima, one year laterFukushima, one year later

Deadly train derailment: At least 38 people were killed and 37 are still missing in the small town of Lac Megantic, Quebec, where a runaway train exploded in the downtown district on Saturday, July 6. Police suspect that some of the victims were vaporized in the explosion. Look back at some of the worst industrial disasters in modern history:Deadly train derailment: At least 38 people were killed and 37 are still missing in the small town of Lac Megantic, Quebec, where a runaway train exploded in the downtown district on Saturday, July 6. Police suspect that some of the victims were vaporized in the explosion. Look back at some of the worst industrial disasters in modern history:
Louisiana chemical plant explosion: A June 13 explosion at a chemical plant in Louisiana killed one person and forced authorities to ask people as far as 2 miles away to stay inside to avoid exposure to potentially deadly fumes. At least 75 people were injured in the blast.Louisiana chemical plant explosion: A June 13 explosion at a chemical plant in Louisiana killed one person and forced authorities to ask people as far as 2 miles away to stay inside to avoid exposure to potentially deadly fumes. At least 75 people were injured in the blast.
China poultry plant fire: A fire which broke out in a poultry plant in northeast China on June 3 killed at least 119 people and injured another 54.China poultry plant fire: A fire which broke out in a poultry plant in northeast China on June 3 killed at least 119 people and injured another 54.
Garment factory collapse: More than 1,000 people died in the May 10 collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Savar, Bangladesh, making it one of the world's worst industrial disasters.Garment factory collapse: More than 1,000 people died in the May 10 collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Savar, Bangladesh, making it one of the world’s worst industrial disasters.
West, Texas, fertilizer plant explosion: 35 people died in a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, on April 17. Included among the dead were 10 first responders who were trying to put out a fire at the plant before the explosion.West, Texas, fertilizer plant explosion: 35 people died in a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, on April 17. Included among the dead were 10 first responders who were trying to put out a fire at the plant before the explosion.
Fukushima nuclear plant: In March 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake caused a tsunami that killed nearly 16,000 people in northeast Japan and damaged backup generators at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Though all three reactors were successfully shut down, the cooling systems failed causing a nuclear meltdown and radiation leaks. The disaster was the second worst nuclear accident in history.Fukushima nuclear plant: In March 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake caused a tsunami that killed nearly 16,000 people in northeast Japan and damaged backup generators at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Though all three reactors were successfully shut down, the cooling systems failed causing a nuclear meltdown and radiation leaks. The disaster was the second worst nuclear accident in history.
Bhopal chemical leak: In December 1984, almost 4,000 people died in the immediate aftermath of the leak of methyl isocyanate from a chemical plant in Bhopal, India. More than 10,000 other deaths have been blamed on related illnesses, with adverse health effects reported in hundreds of thousands of survivors. Found guilty in 2010 of negligence over the disaster: Union Carbide India Limited, which was the now-defunct subsidiary of the U.S. chemical company; the subsidiary's head; and six of his colleagues. Bhopal chemical leak: In December 1984, almost 4,000 people died in the immediate aftermath of the leak of methyl isocyanate from a chemical plant in Bhopal, India. More than 10,000 other deaths have been blamed on related illnesses, with adverse health effects reported in hundreds of thousands of survivors. Found guilty in 2010 of negligence over the disaster: Union Carbide India Limited, which was the now-defunct subsidiary of the U.S. chemical company; the subsidiary’s head; and six of his colleagues.
Chernobyl: The initial death toll was 32, from the 1986 explosion in the core of a nuclear reactor at Chernobyl in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union. But the International Atomic Energy Agency estimates the total number of deaths from contamination will reach about 4,000. The disaster sent a cloud of radioactive fallout over hundreds of thousands of square miles of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. The radioactive effects of the explosion were about 400 times more potent than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II.Chernobyl: The initial death toll was 32, from the 1986 explosion in the core of a nuclear reactor at Chernobyl in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union. But the International Atomic Energy Agency estimates the total number of deaths from contamination will reach about 4,000. The disaster sent a cloud of radioactive fallout over hundreds of thousands of square miles of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. The radioactive effects of the explosion were about 400 times more potent than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II.
Halifax Harbor explosion: In December 1917, the French ammunition ship Mont Blanc and the chartered Belgian steamer Imo collided in Halifax Harbor in Nova Scotia, causing a massive explosion. Officials put the death toll at 1,950.Halifax Harbor explosion: In December 1917, the French ammunition ship Mont Blanc and the chartered Belgian steamer Imo collided in Halifax Harbor in Nova Scotia, causing a massive explosion. Officials put the death toll at 1,950.
Benxihu/Honkeiko Colliery explosion: Guinness World Records lists the April 26, 1942, coal dust explosion at the Benxihu/Honkeiko Colliery in Benxi, China, as the world's worst coal mining disaster. It says the blast at the facility killed 1,549 people.Benxihu/Honkeiko Colliery explosion: Guinness World Records lists the April 26, 1942, coal dust explosion at the Benxihu/Honkeiko Colliery in Benxi, China, as the world’s worst coal mining disaster. It says the blast at the facility killed 1,549 people.
Boston Molasses Disaster: In January 1919, a tank containing 2.3 million gallons of molasses ruptured in Boston, causing a 15-foot high wall of molasses to pummel houses and leave 21 people dead and 150 injured.Boston Molasses Disaster: In January 1919, a tank containing 2.3 million gallons of molasses ruptured in Boston, causing a 15-foot high wall of molasses to pummel houses and leave 21 people dead and 150 injured.
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster: In March 1911, a fire broke out at a factory in Greenwich Village, New York, as employees were leaving for the day. Most of the exits were locked with chains and the fire escape had collapsed; 146 people died in the fire.Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster: In March 1911, a fire broke out at a factory in Greenwich Village, New York, as employees were leaving for the day. Most of the exits were locked with chains and the fire escape had collapsed; 146 people died in the fire.
Courrieres mining disaster: On March 10, 1906, 1,099 people died and hundreds more were injured in an explosion at the Courrieres mine in northern France, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The encyclopedia said smoke and toxic gas had been detected at the site days before the explosion but work had continued.Courrieres mining disaster: On March 10, 1906, 1,099 people died and hundreds more were injured in an explosion at the Courrieres mine in northern France, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The encyclopedia said smoke and toxic gas had been detected at the site days before the explosion but work had continued.
Worst industrial disasters: Canada
Worst industrial disasters: Louisiana
Worst industrial disasters: China
Worst industrial disasters: Bangladesh
Worst industrial disasters: Texas
Worst industrial disasters: Japan
Worst industrial disasters: India
Worst industrial disasters: Soviet Union
Worst industrial disasters: Canada
Worst industrial disasters: China
Worst industrial disasters: Massachusetts
Worst industrial disasters: New York
Worst industrial disasters: France

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Photos: Industrial disasters through historyPhotos: Industrial disasters through history

Medical and dental care are lacking in areas affected by the disaster, Hope for Chernobyl’s Child says. Families there often earn little money and have limited job opportunities, making it difficult to provide food, clothing and medications for their children.

Ask Gorelik whether her son’s health problems are caused by radiation, and she says, “Yes, of course.”

But the reality is much more complex.

Chernobyl tourists see relics among the radiation

What does radiation really cause?

People who lived in the areas that received significant contamination from Chernobyl in 1986 have been the subject of many scientific studies. But researchers haven’t looked much at health problems in the region’s children who weren’t yet born at the time of the disaster, said Scott Davis, epidemiologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center at the University of Washington.

The lack of hard evidence doesn’t mean that lingering radiation isn’t causing harm in some ways, Davis said, but it would be difficult to establish that anyone’s particular disease or condition stems from low-dose radiation exposure over a long period in that area.

“This is a major problem in talking with people who, either themselves or someone close to them, (are) sick,” he said. “To say, ‘Well, we don’t see any risk’ — people just can’t get their head around that.”

The issue is complicated because cancer, for example, caused by radiation looks exactly like cancer that developed for other reasons, experts say. There’s no “Chernobyl” name tag on tumors in people who suffered radiation exposure.

Scientists know radioactive iodine-131 got into the human body when people drank milk from cows that ate contaminated grass, said Dr. Fred Mettler, professor emeritus of the Department of Radiology at the University of New Mexico. This led to higher incidences of thyroid cancer in people who were children at that time — such as Yulia Gorelik, who underwent treatment at age 12.

More than 4,000 such cases were diagnosed from 1992 to 2002, but it’s impossible to say which ones were caused by Chernobyl radiation. Mettler said the iodine is unlikely to have caused cancer in anyone born later — especially because iodine-131 has a half-life of eight days, so in about two months, it’s almost undetectable.

Another radioactive chemical from the reactor explosion, Cesium-137, has a half-life of about 30 years, so it stays around a lot longer than iodine-131 and can still be measured in some soils and foods in several areas of Europe. Still, the dose to which people in the area have been exposed isn’t very high, Mettler said.

The doses from cesium contamination “are low and insufficient to cause effects, had there been any,” said John Boice, professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and president nominee of the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements.

“A lot of the issues become: Are the health things really due to Chernobyl, or are they things which would have occurred anyhow?” Mettler said.

Photos: ‘The city Chernobyl built’

Zones of uncertainty

For Jennifer Henning, president of Hope for Chernobyl’s Child, there’s no question that the ailments the children in the program suffer are the result of radiation exposure.

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“I’ve seen the health effects firsthand,” Henning said. “I know that it’s there.”

A physical education teacher in one of the schools that the organization works with told her that children there are getting weaker and weaker, Henning said.

That there are serious health problems among many youths in Belarus is not in dispute.

In 2008, nearly 22% of adolescents in Belarus had chronic diseases and disabilities, according to a 2010 UNICEF report. Risk factors, according to this report, included smoking and using alcohol and drugs.

Experts say that what organizations such as Hope for Chenobyl’s Child are doing to help children with medical problems — providing assistance in Belarus and flying them to the United States for medical respite — is great. Several other organizations also operate in regions devastated by the Chernobyl accident, such as Chernobyl Children International, the Chernobyl Children’s Project and Chernobyl Children’s Trust.

But rather than radiation-related illness, according to the 2005 Chernobyl Forum report, “The most pressing health concerns for the affected areas thus lie in poor diet and lifestyle factors such as alcohol and tobacco use, as well as poverty and limited access to health care.”

The cause of Chernobyl evokes greater sympathy from the public than some other causes might, Mettler said.

“It’s a very unique, scary accident,” he said. “Everybody in the world knows about it. But, if you were to say, ‘I’ve got children starving in the Sudan,’ people would go, ‘huh, whatever.’ It wouldn’t get their attention.”

Henning points to a 2009 report, published by the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, rounding up evidence that radiation has had a lasting effect on the health of the population in contaminated areas. In Belarus, for instance, cancer morbidity increased 40% from 1990 to 2000, the report said, and girls age 10 to 14 born to irradiated parents had an increase in malignant and benign neoplasms.

Mettler counters this with the Chernobyl Forum report and a report from the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, which both had stamps of approval from representatives of the governments of Russia, Belarus and the Ukraine.

The Chernobyl Forum report said that while increases in congenital malformations in children have been reported in Belarus since 1986, the rates are not related to radiation and “may be the result of increased registration” — i.e. more people reporting their family’s health problems.

“The majority of the ‘contaminated’ territories are now safe for settlement and economic activity,” although certain restrictions need to remain in place on the use of land in some areas, the report said.

More than 5 million people in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine living in “contaminated” areas received whole-body radiation from the accident, but in doses not much higher than the natural radiation in the environment, the report said.

Does that mean that a healthy person could safely move to an area that has been cordoned off for decades and not have an increased risk of cancer? Davis isn’t so sure — but said he believes it hasn’t been studied extensively enough.

“Common sense would dictate that it’s probably not a great idea to live in a highly contaminated area and eat produce produced in the fields that are contaminated, or be in constant exposure mode,” Davis said.

Chernobyl: Environmental dead zone or eco-haven?

A mental toll

Both international reports highlighted the mental health toll as well; the Chernobyl Forum report called this the greatest public health problem that the accident caused. More than 330,000 people were relocated from the hardest-hit areas, which was a “deeply traumatic experience” for many.

“There is no question that people who either are exposed to radiation or think they might have been, suddenly are very nervous, and every time something happens, they go, ‘Oh, my God, what is this? Do I have a problem?’ And they dash off to the hospital,” Mettler said.

Studies have shown that this population has a higher level of anxiety and are more likely to report that they have physical symptoms that they cannot explain, according to the Chernobyl Forum report. They’re also more likely to say they are in poor health.

The report noted that as the media began to speak of “Chernobyl victims” and governments offered disaster-related benefits, “rather than perceiving themselves as ‘survivors,’ many of those people have come to think of themselves as helpless, weak and lacking control over their future.”

Gorelik was not evacuated after Chernobyl. She grew up in the region of Gomel, the same area where she and Daniel live today. About a 20-minute drive away is the “Dead Zone,” where entire villages have been abandoned since 1986.

Getting medical care

Gorelik and Daniel stayed with Henning’s family in the Seattle area during part of the summer. They returned to Belarus at the beginning of August, Henning said. During their time in the Pacific Northwest, they saw the ocean, mountains and a rainforest, in addition to various doctors. Daniel put on 4.5 pounds during the six-week stay.

“Yulia and Daniel saw various doctors and it was determined that many of their health issues could be attributed to the poor nutrition that is so common in this area of Belarus,” Henning said in an e-mail.

Among the nine children and two adults, including Gorelik, who spent this summer in the United States through Hope for Chernobyl’s Child, a total of 47 cavities were filled, four wisdom teeth were pulled, and 60 blood tests were taken, Henning said. The Belarusians gained a combined total of 26.5 pounds.

Gorelik said in July that Hope for Chernobyl’s Child has given her not only material help but also mental support. The gratitude she feels toward the organization and her hosts is immeasurable, she says.

Reflecting on her situation, her words about lack of control are reminiscent of the Chernobyl Forum Report: “If you are living in bad conditions, sometimes, you feel like you are alone. You don’t have control of your life. You don’t have any support. You don’t have any hope, maybe. There is only one hope, to God. But if you meet some people who can give you their hands, and their help, it is making you stronger, it is making you happy, really happy. That’s why I’m grateful with all my soul.”

Gorelik and Daniel left for their long journey back to Belarus on August 5, including a 13-hour layover in Frankfurt. Henning and colleagues arranged for them, and the others in the Hope for Chernobyl’s Child group, to rest in a lounge at the airport.

Such cross-cultural friendship has become part of the fallout of Chernobyl.

26 years on: Helping Chernobyl’s children

Follow Elizabeth Landau on Twitter and Google+


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