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Poverty, mental health greatest stumbling blocks for Chernobyl survivors, UN

Poverty, mental health greatest stumbling blocks for Chernobyl survivors, UN

Among the hundreds of thousands who were exposed to radiation during the Chernobyl disaster 20 years ago, only about 4,000 people will die from acute radiation and cancer, but many more suffer from the lingering effects of poverty, and lack of information on how to live in the contaminated areas and on how to regain their livelihoods, according to a new United Nations report.

Resources should be refocused on highly contaminated areas and government programmes should be redesigned to “help those genuinely in need,” said the report, “Chernobyl: The True Scale of the Accident,” conducted by the Chernobyl Forum, which includes eight specialized UN agencies and the governments of Belarus, Russia and the Ukraine.

Although the disaster had terrible consequences for people living in the region, “we have not found profound negative health impacts to the rest of the population in surrounding areas, nor have we found widespread contamination that would continue to pose a substantial threat to human health,” Burton Bennett, chairman of the Chernobyl Forum, said.

Instead, poverty, lifestyle diseases related to alcohol, smoking, stress and poor diets now rampant in the former Soviet Union, and mental health problems pose a far greater threat to local communities than do radiation exposure. The mental health impact was far larger than the physical health problems, attributable to the damaging impact of lack of information, negative self-assessments, belief in short life expectancy, and “lack of initiative, and dependency on assistance from the state,” it added.

Relocation of 116,000 people at the time of the accident also proved to be “highly traumatic,” the report said.

Consisting of 100 scientists, the panel recommended that the Chernobyl assistance programmes that had been set up after the disaster to help mend the lives of residents should be more targeted, eliminate benefits to people in outlying areas, improve primary health care, support safe food production, and encourage small and medium sized business enterprises.

Among those people considered most in need are an estimated 4,000 out of 600,000 emergency workers, evacuees and residents who may die from acute radiation syndrome (ARS) or radiation-induced cancer and leukaemia. Since the 1986 disaster, 50 emergency workers died of ARS, and 4,000 children have contracted thyroid cancer. Despite its sometimes physically debilitating effects, thyroid cancer is treatable and only nine children have died from the disease.

Stressing the need to scale back large subsidy programmes for residents, better information needs to be provided by the governments of Belarus, Russia, and the Ukraine, “not only about how to live safely in regions of low-level contamination, but also about leading healthy lifestyles and creating new livelihoods,” said Louisa Vinton, Chernobyl focal point at the UN Development Programme, (UNDP).

Attention should also be paid to the environmental problems brewing on the horizon, such as how to get rid of the tons of highly radioactive contaminants at and around the Chernobyl site, and the slow disintegration of the sarcophagus built to contain the damaged reactor which has degraded, and poses a risk of collapse and the release of radioactive dust, the report added.

The Chernobyl Forum is composed of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UNDP, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), and the World Bank.