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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A New Look at Chernobyl

Ever since an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986 sent a radioactive cloud spewing into the atmosphere, the people on whom it fell have been asking themselves one question: When will the radiation take its toll?

Dr. Robert Peter Gale's answer: Maybe never.

Politicians and activists warn that the long-term health effects are sure to be severe. But Gale, the American doctor who rushed to Moscow to treat Chernobyl's first victims, has a different view.

Seven years after the accident on April 26, 1986, he says there is still "no convincing evidence" of extensive health consequences over the long term.

Gale, 47, is one of the world's foremost authorities on the effects of radiation and the health effects of the Chernobyl fallout. Chairman of the Advisory Committee of the International Bone Marrow Transplant Registry and head of the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit at the University of California-Los Angeles Medical Center, he is also the author of Final Warning, a book on the Chernobyl accident and its legacy.

Since his first trip after the accident, he has returned every few months to aid Chernobyl victims, most recently to establish a Children of Chernobyl International Lottery.

He does not deny that the Chernobyl accident has taken and could take a tragic toll. But he insists that fear and the public's ignorance about the general effects of radiation have blown an already bad picture out of proportion.

"They said that thousands died", he said in Moscow last week, recalling rumors and media reports that spread wildly in the days after the accident occurred. "But it cannot be true that there were mass graves".

This is because the only people who died immediately were 31 who were at the Chernobyl plant itself, he said. Gale's team treated the 499 workers, security guards, and firefighters who were at the plant at the time of or shortly after the explosion, and 90 percent survived with the help of a drug that stimulated their bone marrow, reversing the effects of the radiation.

Returned to health, they still face an increased risk of cancer later in life.

All others, from the towns nearest the reactor to affected areas hundreds of kilometers away, are susceptible to genetic defects or cancer as long-term consequences of the accident.

But by no means will all of those affected develop health problems, Gale said, nor will the proportions be as high as some have estimated.

Of 100, 000 people who survived the atomic bomb explosions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for example, 400 developed leukemia within five years, followed by scattered cases of other types of cancer 20 years later, he said.

This is far less than had been expected, he added.

The perception that Chernobyl is taking a vicious toll is exacerbated by a tendency to attribute health problems like heart problems to the accident, he said. But radiation's effects are documented and specific, and they do not include heart problems or even all forms of cancer, Gale said.

When children in one part of Ukraine began losing their hair, for example, people quickly blamed Chernobyl. But the real cause, he said, turned out to be another ecological disaster - the release of heavy metals from an industrial accident.

"Our problem is that often by not understanding, people take actions that adversely affect their health", Gale said.

He listed among these malnutrition from a refusal to eat fresh fruits that people wrongly fear may be radiation-soaked, and psychological trauma. A study done jointly by the World Health Organization and the International Atomic Energy Association concluded that the rate of health problems among those affected by Chernobyl was no higher than usual, Gale said.

This may be one of the only such studies ever done. Examining the effects of radiation from Chernobyl is unusually difficult because the Soviet authorities failed to keep good data, Gale said, so there is nothing with which to compare today's findings.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union and unpredictable economic conditions have compounded the problem, he said. Changes in diet or habits - smoking or drinking - for example, can greatly affect health figures. Instead, he encourages that funding go for treatment.

"With the economic and social changes today", he said, "it is not possible to do a convincing study".