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Tracking the Long Life of Nuclear Harm

With innovative data collection and persistence, an Alabama doctor of genetics is challenging official assurances that harm from nuclear accidents is short lived.

Dr. Wladimir Wertelecki, pictured at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, isn’t satisfied with global assurances over reproductive health concerns at nuclear accident sites like Chernobyl.

Dr. Wladimir Wertelecki, pictured at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, isn’t satisfied with global assurances over reproductive health concerns at nuclear accident sites like Chernobyl.

In a spate of recent medical journal articles and presentations at scientific conferences, Dr. Wladimir Wertelecki has warned that long-term health risks from nuclear power plant disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima may be greater than we think — particularly for pregnant women. 

Research by Wertelecki — former chairman of the University of South Alabama Department of Medical Genetics — has for nearly two decades focused on reproductive health in the Ukrainian province of Rivne. It was among the areas most heavily impacted by Chernobyl and now has the highest concentration of a small group of birth defects recorded anywhere in Europe. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and World Health Organization (WHO) — which speak with a single voice in such matters — dismiss any connection between what they view as safe exposure levels and spiking birth defects. 

In 2005, IAEA and WHO jointly released what is widely accepted as the definitive analysis of the disaster and its aftermath, “Chernobyl’s Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts.” It asks and responds to such questions as “Have there been or will there be any inherited or reproductive effects?” Highlights of the three-paragraph answer: Lingering radiation “is unlikely to have any major effect on the number of stillbirths, adverse pregnancy outcomes or delivery complications or the overall health of children.” And “no discernable increase in hereditary effects caused by radiation is expected.” The report, now in its third revision, suggests that better data collection accounts for increases in the number of anomalies that are being reported. 

For his part, Wertelecki is not yet ready to confirm the connection. “These are descriptive studies. They are not designed to prove cause and effect,” he explains. 

The initial stage was descriptive because they first had to look at every birth defect and every potential cause to identify what was relevant. 

“We are careful to say that, yes, there are elevated levels of radiation in pregnant women. And yes, there are elevated rates of birth defects in the same area where these women live. But we are not saying that one is directly connected to other. We would be surprised if it isn’t. But we have not yet established it,” he continues. “To show cause and effect, we need to connect the woman who had the [internal radiation] measurement, with the child that was born to her. And that has not been done. That’s being done, but that’s not done.”

You might think this information, derived from extensive, long-term studies, would pique the interest of IAEA, WHO and others with oversight responsibilities, even if they consider such low-level exposure to be safe for adults and children. X-rays are considered safe, yet pregnant women have for decades been advised to be wary of them, particularly abdominal x-rays. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration website explains: “The risk to you and your unborn child is very small. But even small risks should not be taken if they’re unnecessary.” It further stipulates that while “there is scientific disagreement about whether the small amounts of radiation used in diagnostic radiology can actually harm the unborn child, it is known that the unborn child is very sensitive to the effects of things like radiation, certain drugs, excess alcohol and infection.”

That’s not a comparison Wertelecki would make. He’s an apples-to-apples kind of guy, and there’s little commonality between the type of exposure one gets by being x-rayed and what he encounters in Ukraine. And yet, he says, that is precisely what IAEA and WHO have done by viewing dangers posed by Chernobyl and Fukushima through a Hiroshima/Nagasaki-tinted lens.

Wertelecki didn’t set out to do radiation studies. In 1996 he joined efforts that eventually coalesced into the formation of OMNI-Net Ukraine and the establishment of a network of population-based registries that monitor all births in Rivne and adjoining provinces.  

Wertelecki’s first analysis of OMNI-Net data was done jointly with colleagues from the Centers for Disease Control in 2004. It indicated that a class of congenital anomaly that arises before the implantation of fertilized eggs was significantly higher in the study area than elsewhere in Europe. It also suggested correlations between their rates and the severity of local contamination. But a single scientific study rarely proves anything beyond the need for further research. So they continued collecting data to be sure the results would remain consistent over time.

Rivne, Ukraine is the ideal natural laboratory for the research. Topographical differences mean that the food supply is far more heavily contaminated in one half of the province than in the other. And nearly all of the food consumed there is produced locally. Northern Rivne is a vast wetlands region, known as Polissia. Elsewhere (non-Polissia) the terrain resembles that of northern Louisiana. Wetland soils are nearly devoid of clay, a natural binder that retards the transfer of radiation from soil to vegetation. 

“In Polissia, if you have, let’s say, 10 units of radiation in the soil, 9 out of 10 will get sucked out. If you have 10 units of radiation in non-Polissia, a much lower proportion will get sucked out. So in Rivne, just measuring radiation in soils is virtually meaningless,” Wertelecki explains. “In Ukraine, you get the radiation by incorporation — from eating mushrooms or potatoes, drinking water or milk, and breathing smoke from fires.” 

Wertelecki’s group uses specially equipped chairs placed in waiting rooms that employ spectrometers to precisely measure internal radiation. “When patients register to see a doctor at a central facility providing access to advanced medical technologies, each is encouraged to undergo, voluntarily, radiometric measurements,” he says. 

They now have amassed nearly 50,000 such measurements. 

“It’s priceless information,” he says. “And about three years ago, the pre-natal service agreed to include pregnant women. So we now have nearly 20,000 measurements of pregnant women.”

They also measure actual radioactivity levels in local foodstuffs. They find much higher concentrations of cesium-137 in the milk and vegetables available in Polissia than in those in non-Polissia. Radiometric measurements reveal correspondingly higher concentrations of cesium-137 in those living in Polissia. And birth defects are similarly more elevated in that area.

Wertelecki has recently detailed the third major analysis of the data in articles published in the journals of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Japanese Society of Teratology, a society dedicated to the study of congenital birth defects. And in the past year, he has been invited to present his findings at meetings sponsored by the American Teratology Society, the Japanese Teratology Society, the New York Academy of Medicine and others. Still, his work remains controversial — in part because it appears to challenge the findings of U.S. Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC) investigations into the health impacts of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb blasts. 

That’s a misconception, says Wertelecki, a comparison of apples and pears. 

At the outset of his presentation, “Congenital Malformations in Rivne Wetlands and the Chernobyl Accident,” at the New York Academy of Medicine last year, Wertelecki said, “Data is data, and good data is good data, and many ABCC-sponsored studies have set ‘gold standards’ that stand today. However, the core issue is the interpretation of the ABCC data. And in my view the ABCC data is of very limited relevance to the circumstances that followed Chernobyl.” 

He then explained that “the ionizing radiation in the Rivne province of Ukraine is chronic, not acute — a continuous, steady drip, not a blast. It stems from eating foods and breathing smoke containing radioactive chemical elements. In Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the impacts were high-energy radiation and other electromagnetic waves, such as heat. In short, the radioactivity moved over all body parts but only lasted a short while. The lingering radiation there was minimal.”

Even if accepted safety standards supported by ABCC data are applicable to Chernobyl and the exposures being monitored by Wertelecki’s group pose absolutely no danger to adults, there is no established ‘safe’ fetal exposure. “A fetus is not a small adult. It may be 40, 50, 100 times more sensitive,” says Wertelecki, whose research shows the internal radiation levels in women who live in Polissia are still rising, not declining as would be expected. 

Wertelecki thinks that the investigative model of his colleagues might also prove pertinent to the nuclear accident at Fukushima. Or their findings might spark new avenues of inquiry into elevated levels of the same birth defects detected in populations living near less notorious but troubled nuclear power plants, including one in the state of Washington. 

Still, his true interest here is not radiation. It’s preventing birth defects. “As a physician,” he told those gathered at the New York Academy of Medicine, “prevention is first — not epidemiology.”

Adrian Hoff is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Mobile.

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