Twenty years after Chernobyl

Chernobyl alert over birth defects

23 April 2007

From New Scientist Print Edition


Radiation or relocation? A study of birds around Chernobyl suggests that nuclear fallout, rather than stress and deteriorating living conditions, may be responsible for human birth defects in the region.

People living around the site of the 1986 nuclear disaster in Ukraine have unusually high levels of physical abnormalities and birth defects. The International Atomic Energy Agency has suggested that the abnormalities are caused by the impact of relocation and stress on the population, and Timothy Mousseau, at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, wanted to put this to the test.

Mousseau and his colleagues examined 7700 barn swallows from Chernobyl and compared them with birds from elsewhere. They found that Chernobyl's swallows were more likely to have tumours, misshapen toes and feather deformities than swallows from uncontaminated parts of Europe (Biology Letters, DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2007.0136).

"We don't fully understand the consequences of low doses of radiation," says Mousseau. "We should be more concerned about the human population."