The risk of survivors of the Chernobyl accident dying early is far less than supposed, ranking about the same as exposure to air pollution or passive smoking, according to new research published on Tuesday.
LONDON -- The risk of survivors of the Chernobyl accident dying early is far less than supposed, ranking about the same as exposure to air pollution or passive smoking, according to new research published on Tuesday.
The human toll from the world's worst civil nuclear accident has been hotly debated ever since the Ukrainian power station's No. 4 reactor blew up on April 26, 1986, spewing radioactive dust across Europe.
Now a top British scientist has evaluated the comparative risks and concluded that for those most affected by the disaster -- emergency workers and people living nearby -- the increased risk of premature death due to radiation is around 1 percent.
That is roughly the same as the risk of dying from diseases triggered by air pollution in a major city or the effects of inhaling other people's tobacco smoke, said Jim Smith of Britain's Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.
Smith has been a regular visitor to the contaminated 30-km (20-mile) "exclusion zone" around Chernobyl that straddles parts of Ukraine and neighbouring Belarus and has found wildlife to be thriving there.
Some people are also living in the area and surviving well into their 70s, he noted.
"Populations still living unofficially in the abandoned lands around Chernobyl may actually have a lower health risk from radiation than they would have if they were exposed to the air pollution health risk in a large city such as nearby Kiev," Smith wrote in the journal BioMedCentral Public Health.
His study focused on long-term health risks to survivors who received high but non-lethal doses of radiation.
It excluded the cases of 134 firemen and helicopter pilots who suffered acute radiation sickness, leading to death in around 40 cases.
About 4,000 people also developed thyroid cancer in 1986 as a result of the accident, most of them children and adolescents, although the survival rate has been 99 percent.
Smith told reporters it was important to put the relative risks of radiation in perspective -- not least to help survivors of Chernobyl, who have suffered two decades of mental anguish about the risk of developing various cancers.
"The mis-perception of radiation risks has caused serious economic, social and psychological problems for the population," he said.
The World Health Organisation puts at 9,000 the number of people expected to die of radiation exposure from Chernobyl, while environmental group Greenpeace has predicted an eventual death toll of 93,000.
Smith's research was funded by Britain's government-backed Natural Environment Research Council.