Published On: Mon, Aug 18th, 2014

Chernobyl Disaster – The Cancer Threat Continues

An accident that changed the lives of millions of people continues to pose severe health threat in the form of thyroid cancer risk till date. The tragic accident happened at a nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine in 1986. It has been more than 25 years since then but thyroid cancers are still common among people who were young children or adolescents at the time of the accident. This is because the accident exposed them to radioactive iodine -131, or I-131, which is found to concentrate in the thyroid gland.

A radioactive sign hangs on barbed wire outside a café in Pripyat. photo VOA Photo / D. Markosian

A radioactive sign hangs on barbed wire outside a café in Pripyat.
photo VOA Photo / D. Markosian

Initial examinations conducted on more than 25,000 people exposed to the accident showed strong proof that there was a 5 to 6 times increase in thyroid cancer cases due to the radiation, principally among those who were young children or adolescents at the time of the accident. Other studies were done on individuals who were exposed to radioiodines in-utero.

In a recent study conducted by the NIH, it is pointed out that cancer threat for those people who were children or adolescents at the time of the Chernobyl disaster has not reduced till date. It was this team of researchers under the NIH which found that there was a close association between exposure to I-131 and thyroid cancer incidence. It was also found that the risk did not reduce with passage of time. This study was first of its kind, which examined the thyroid cancer risk related to I-131 exposure which the children and adolescents of Chernobyl area were subjected to because of the accident.

Alina Brenner, the study author, who is from the Radiation Epidemiology Branch of NCI, explained that this study is not like previous Chernobyl studies. The first difference is that the experts based radiation doses from the isotope I-131 on measurement of radioactivity in every person’s thyroid within 2 months from the date of the accident. Also, they identified cases of thyroid cancer with the help of standardized methods of examination- they screened everyone in the cohort, no matter what the dose of radiation was.

Examining more than 12,500 participants who were 18 years old or less at the time of the Chernobyl accident, the experts measured thyroid activity levels for each participant within two months of the date of the accident and each person’s I-131 dose was then estimated. After 12 to 14 years of this accident, the participants were regularly screened for thyroid cancer every three months for 10 years.

The methods of screening were standard- checking for growths in the thyroid glands, ultrasonography, examination by an endocrinologist and thorough history. There were also questionnaires to be filled where the participants were asked about their place of residence, milk consumption, whether they had taken preventive non-radioactive iodine within two months from the date of accident to reduce the radioactive iodine which the thyroid would have absorbed. Biopsy was also conducted for those patients who were suspected to have thyroid cancer. 65 participants were diagnosed with thyroid cancer and some were referred for surgery also.

Guest Author: Lolita Di

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