Commemorating the Chernobyl disaster

Image of the new safe confinement of April 2015 by Tim Porter, Wikimedia Commons

On the occasion of commemorating the Chernobyl disaster which happened then 25 years ago an interview with Dörte Siedentopf (a physician who has since 20 years been working in disaster relief programs for victims of the disaster and an antinuclear activist) had been published on Germanys major public news website. It was reposted today on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the disaster. Amongst others Dörte Siedentopf drew my attention to a 1959 agreement between the IAEA and the WHO.

Unfortunately I have found no original text of that 1959 agreement on the websites of the IAEA or WHO, but only excerpts posted on the website of an activist group which calls itself independentWHO.

According to their citations the agreement contains sentences like this:

Whenever either organization proposes to initiate a programme or activity on a subject in which the other organization has or may have a substantial interest, the first party shall consult the other with a view to adjusting the matter by mutual agreement.

Sounds a bit problematic to you?
Well here a WHO statement which seems to be a kind of response to concerns about that agreement:

Interpretation of WHO’s agreement with the international Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) (Statement WHO/06 23 February 2001), excerpt:

The 1959 Agreement between WHO and IAEA does not affect the impartial and independent exercise by WHO of its statutory responsibilities, nor does it place WHO in a situation of subordination to IAEA. This has been amply demonstrated in the past, with one such example being the WHO recommendations on iodine prophylaxis in the case of nuclear accidents, which were published recently in hard copy and which may be consulted on the WHO web site.

(in this context you might want to read how Switzerland just enlarged its iodine tablet distribution in the vicinity of their power plants).

So in order to check out how well this “independent exercise of statutory responsibilities” works, lets look at an example of a cooperation between WHO and IAEA (and others), namely the Chernobyl Forum which issued the sofar most important assessment report of the Chernobyl disaster, namely the Health Effects of the Chernobyl Accident and Special Health Care Programmes (Report of the UN Chernobyl Forum Expert Group “Health”, Geneva 2006)

I was interested in their assessment of Birth defects and Down’s syndrome, which is on page 86 and 87. Go there. Look at it!

For those who don’t want to check page 86 and 87: the cited research which is included in this section is the following:

-an on-going study in Belarus by Lazjuk (1999; 2003) according to which it is found that

In fact, there were statistically significantly less congenital abnormalities in the high contamination areas compared with low contamination areas, with a RR of 0.88 (95% CI 0.84–0.91).

Other work of the same author is mentioned but not taken much into account as yet not evaluated enough.

-a study in Ukraine by Fedoryshyn et al. (2002)
which reported a

statistically significant increase in congenital abnormalities in contaminated areas (Zhytomir) compared to a control area (Lvov), but as the authors mentioned, the value is “holding within the limits of spontaneous oscillations.


When the data were confined to easily discernable and recognizable “model” abnormalities, there was no statistically significant difference.

- Links to conference reports of a Conference in Ukraine:

Anomalies of extremities (such as polydactyly) are some of the most frequent findings in Chernobyl-affected children reported at the 3rd International Conference Fifteen Years after Chernobyl (Kiev, 2001). However, this information should be addressed with caution, as further analytical research will be needed to confirm such claims.

- a Belarus study (Zatsepin et al., 2004) which shows a peak in down syndrome for Jan 1987 (Figure 4) but

Overall, however there does not appear to be an overall trend in of an increasing incidence of Down’s syndrome from before or since the accident.

This is basically all. If you don’t believe me then again: please check it out yourself. So following this analysis of articles from basically three different author groups from Belarus and Ukraine the report states in their conclusions (p.92):

Given the range of absorbed doses received by the vast majority of parents prior to or during conception, the Chernobyl epidemiological studies are consistent with evidence in previous scientific literature. They do not indicate a radiation related increase in malformations or infant mortality as a direct result of radiation exposure.

There has been a modest but steady increase of equal magnitude in reported congenital malformations in both contaminated and control areas since 1986. This does not appear to be radiation related and may be a result of increased observation or reporting.

Dörte Siedentopf says about Ukrainian and Belarus statistics:

Eine für die Statistik verantwortliche Frau erzählte mir, sie bekomme Vorgaben aus der Bezirksstadt. Es werde geschrieben, was die Vorgesetzten hören wollten, denn niemand wolle seine Prämie verlieren. Im Jahr 2010 gab es in der Statistik fast keine Krebstoten mehr.


Deswegen ist der Statistik in autoritären Ländern wie Weißrussland, aber auch in der Ukraine nicht zu trauen.

translation without guarantee

A woman which is responsible for statistics told me that she gets guidelines from the districts city. It will be written that what authorities want to hear, because nobody wants to loose its premium. In the year 2010 they had in their statistics basically no cancer deaths.


Therefore you have to take the statistics of authoritarian countries like Belarus but also Ukraine with a huge grain of salt.

and indeed a quick look at the global cancer mortality rates reveals the astonishing fact that the rates in Belarus and Ukraine are distinctly lower that in their neighbour states:
(Ukraine 114, Belarus 121) the numbers for directly adjacent countries are Russia 123, Lithuania 129, Poland 131, Slovakia, 126 Hungary 152, Romania 127 per 100000 people. )

Of course you have to make choices for such a big report and to filter facts. So the report in particular left out studies like the article Congenital Malformation and Stillbirth in Germany and Europe Before and After the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Accident from 2003 which displays a rather strong increase of birth prevalences (proportions) of two congenital heart malformations (ICD7454+ICD7455, n = 2797) in the five uppermost contaminated districts of the study in Bavaria (p. 121 fig 5) (at least until 1991).

Judge yourself how “well-filtered” this is and how independently health assessments were performed. And also test how surprising it appears to you that e.g. in 2010 a new study appeared in which:

The findings, reported in the journal Pediatrics, stand in contrast to a 2005 U.N. report stating that there is no evidence of an increased risk of birth defects or other reproductive effects in areas contaminated by radiation from the Chernobyl accident

Anyways I just randomly picked that section from the report and maybe that section was “an unfortunate composition”. And finally it has to be stated that on average the report seems to see radioactive pollution still more as a possible hazard to health than as a possible benefit. So at this place it thus should be mentioned that e.g. Keith Baverstock a former radiation scientist at WHO called for a reform from within the profession.

Want to have a more recent example? In their response to concerns about the agreement with the IAEA the WHO highlights their independency from IAEA by noting at the end of that statement from 2001 that:

As regards depleted uranium, WHO is currently finalizing a generic assessment of any possible health risks posed by exposure to depleted uranium….In addition, WHO has undertaken field missions to Kosovo and Iraq to investigate the health situation and to provide the needed professional advice to the respective health authorities.

Those who are not too familiar with the problems of certain uses of depleted uranium might read the article: UN finds Kosovo nuclear danger -US ammunition may have been made with ‘dirty’ depleted uranium. A quote from the article:

Officials of the UN environment programme said tests on material gathered by its team of experts in Kosovo had revealed traces of uranium 236 – an isotope found only in spent nuclear fuel – among weapons delivered by Nato aircraft in the 1999 conflict.

The discovery came as the latest senior figure to enter the debate, the commander of British forces in the Gulf war, Sir Peter de la Billiere, called last night for a full public inquiry into claims that exposure to depleted uranium weapons had caused serious illnesses among British troops. He also suggested compensation for afflicted service personnel….Sir Peter’s intervention will be welcomed by Gulf war vet erans convinced the shells have led to serious illnesses.

In September 2013 the WHO finally released a report. I already spent way too much time looking at the Chernobyl-forum report and I definitely don’t have the time to scan also through this report but eventually you may want to read the Guardian article: How the World Health Organisation covered up Iraq’s nuclear nightmare.

Oh and it should be mentioned that there seems to be a very special partnership of a newer sort:

Cooperation between the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is formalized through a Practical Arrangement, signed by both organizations in October 2012.

Do you perceive disconcern or even anxiety? Then listen to this appeasing message of the IAEA in their 2 min video “Chernobyl: The True Scale of the Accident“, citation from 1:20- 1:31:

“The forum has been agreed that the largest public health problems were psychological facts and misconceptions about the threat of radiation resulting in (tantalizing? *) fatalism among the residents of affected areas.”

*couldn’t properly understand that word

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