Nuclear Monitor, May 3, 2007

In the past decade there were jubilant stories in the media on the flourishing wildlife in the 30-kilometer (19-mile) "exclusion zone" around the nuclear disaster site of Chornobyl. The healthy looking animals in the zone, however, appear to be not that healthy. A new study on birds shows a link to radiation. The new studies are among the first to measure empirically the long-term effects of massive radiation contamination over an almost 2,000-square-mile area.

A new study shows that birds in the vicinity of Chornobyl suffer from many more birth defects and abnormalities than would normally be expected. Furthermore the scientists found that many birds are not living as long and are not breeding as successfully as their counterparts outside the radioactive zone. The new findings, published in the peer-reviewed Proceedings of the Royal Society in Britain, also suggest that organisms can detect hazards to their long-term health and species survival even when the hazard cannot be smelled, tasted or observed visually.

The studies by Tim Mousseau and Anders Moller are among the first to measure empirically the long-term effects of massive radiation contamination over an almost 2,000-square-mile area. Chornobyl is unique in the world in the amount of radiation spilled by the disaster over a broad land mass. But Mousseau and others say there has been too little scientific research so far to measure the impact of the radiation on the environment and living organisms.

Moller and Mousseau examined more than 7,700 birds, from Chornobyl and from control areas in among others Spain and Denmark. Findings revealed that more than 13% of the Chornobyl birds had partial albinism tufts of white feathers compared to levels of around 4% in the control birds. Recapturing the same birds year after year showed that birds with abnormalities were four times less likely to survive and that breeding success was reduced by over 50%.

The outcome directly contradicts a 2005 report prepared by the Chornobyl Forum, which is led by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the World Health Organization (WHO). According to this forum the causes of poor health in the Chornobyl region were mainly caused by stress, an unhealthy lifestyle and other factors, and they emphasized that the local population were exposed to radiation doses, which are too low to cause damage to human health.

In the US daily "The State" former director of the Center for Risk Management at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory Curtis Travis calls Mousseau's and Moller's research important. "There have been very few studies on ecology effects (at Chernobyl)," he said. "Chornobyl is important because it represents low levels of contaminants over a long period of time, while Hiroshima represented high doses over a short period of time […] While many official reports have downplayed the long-term impact of Chornobyl on humans, all of the data says radiation causes human health effects down to the lowest levels. There is no threshold," Travis said.

Moller and Mousseau think that the health impact of the Chornobyl disaster could be much worse. Co-author of the study Tim Mousseau, a biology professor at the University of South Carolina: "Birds don't drink, birds don't smoke, and they don't suffer the same kind of stresses as humans that can cause diseases such as cancers". The findings support the theory of Mousseau and his colleagues that the low-level radiation in the Chornobyl zone is enough to cause the high rates of abnormalities and birth defects reported in humans living in the region. If they are right, then millions of people living in Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia are still at risk.

Look for more information on: http://cricket.biol.sc.edu/Chernobyl.htm

Sources: A.P. Moller and T.A. Mousseau (2007). Birds prefer to breed in sites with low radioactivity in Chornobyl. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences: 27 March-3 April, 2007 / Smart birds might teach lesson, The State, 9 April 2007 / National Geographic News, 18 April 2007

Contact: Tim Mousseau: Mousseau@sc.edu / Anders Moller: amoller@snv.jussieu.fr