Long-Term Consequences of the Chernobyl Radioactive Fallout: An Exploration of the Aggregate Data

Original Scholarship

Policy Points:

  • Policymakers should invest more on researching the long-term health effects of low-ionizing radiation exposure, as we are far from reaching a consensus on a topic that is of enormous importance for public health and safety.
  • Public policies such as those limiting the import of contaminated food from areas hit by a radioactive disaster or those regulating the resident population’s access to such areas should follow a precautionary approach.
  • Neoplasm diagnosis and medical care should be designed in order to take into account the possible role of long-term, low-dose radiation exposure.
  • Health care policies should provide effective screening and prevention strategies with a specific focus on the regions that were hit most severely by the Chernobyl nuclear fallout.
  • Health care expenditure should be targeted, taking into account the geographical dispersion of the fallout in order to attenuate its possible effect on neoplasm incidence.

Context: This study investigates the association between the radioactive 137Cesium fallout originated by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident and dispersed over Western Europe, as a result of a combination of radioactive cloud passage days and rainy days over a 10-day period, and long-term health patterns and related costs. Since the half-life of 137Cesium is 30.17 years, part of the radioactivity in the affected regions is still present today, and it is usually still detected in the food chain, although at lower concentration levels.

Methods: We match longitudinal data on neoplasm incidence over the time span 2000-2013 in a number of European regions not immediately adjacent to Chernobyl with the randomly distributed levels of cesium deposition after the nuclear disaster in order to assess whether we can detect an association with the long-term health effects on the European population through a random effects model.

Findings: Considering 3 levels of fallout deposition—low, medium, and high—hospital discharges after treatment for neoplasms are, respectively, 0.36, 0.44, and 0.98 discharges over 100 inhabitants higher compared to regions with no fallout, with the population average being around 1.7 hospital discharges by neoplasms over 100 inhabitants. We checked the robustness of our findings to a number of tests including a placebo simulation and different model specifications.

Conclusions: Radioactive fallout is positively associated with a higher incidence of hospital discharges after treatment for neoplasms almost 30 years after its release, with larger effects in regions where the radioactivity was more intense. Our estimates are comparable to the findings of the largest-scale study on the long-term health effects of continuous low levels of radiation exposure among workers in the nuclear industry and suggest that more research is needed on this topic, given its enormous importance for public health and safety.

Keywords: Chernobyl nuclear accident health, radioactive fallout, neoplasm, epidemiology of radiation-induced cancer.

Read on Wiley Online Library

Volume 96, Issue 4 (pages 814-857)
DOI: 10.1111/1468-0009.12358
Published in 2018