Learning lessons from Chernobyl

September 20, 2001

(Editorial: lessons from Chernobyl) BMJ volume 323, pp 1-2

Our response to international disasters needs to be better coordinated, if we are to maximise the benefit to the country affected and the world as a whole, says an editorial in this week's BMJ.

Dillwyn Williams, joint director of the Thyroid Carcinogenesis Group at Strangeways Research Laboratory, University of Cambridge, writes his comments in light of the 15th anniversary of Chernobyl, the world's worst nuclear disaster to date.

The international response to the need to study the long term health consequences was initially uncoordinated and continues to be inadequate, he says. He documents an array of separate studies by international agencies, individual countries and various organisations, with duplicated results on the same tumours, and the use of tissue samples sometimes without governmental agreement.

Personality clashes and an initial unwillingness to fund collaborative studies, played their part in the confusion, he writes. And a reluctance at first to accept the evidence of an increase in thyroid cancer also hampered a coordinated response. "In some cases the reluctance appeared to be an example of the general rule that the degree of proof needed to accept a causal link is strongly correlated with the vested interests of the individual or organisation in the outcome."

But he warns that an international study of all the long term health effects of Chernobyl is needed now. Thyroid cancer is unlikely to be the only consequence, and claims of immune impairment, birth defects and various other cancers need to be properly investigated. This will be of value not only help in terms of helping the sick, but will also inform the debate on the merits and disadvantages of nuclear power.

Chernobyl occurred in a country that has a history of scientific isolation and has subsequently undergone radical political and economic change, making such a study all the more difficult, says professor Williams. But unless we can coordinate our responses more effectively and impartially, we will not be able to improve our ability to prevent future disasters and to deal with the consequences when they do occur.


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