Lead Researcher Mati Rahu, PhD, National Institute for Health Development
Professor Anneli Uusküla, MD, MS, PhD, University of Tartu
Professor Hajo Zeeb, MD, MSc, PhD, Leibniz Institute for Prevention Research and Epidemiology, Germany
The April 26, 1986, accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant caused radioactive pollution that spread over the Northern Hemisphere. Some 530,000 persons, among them a bit over 17,000 men from the Baltic countries, were sent to cleanup in the most affected territories of Ukraine. This study investigates whether and how working in the Chernobyl area had an effect on the clean-up workers' health.
The epidemiological study, based on the data of the Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian cancer registries for 1986-2007, showed that cancer incidence among cleanup workers was equal to that of the male population in these countries. An excess of thyroid cancers in cleanup workers is due to thyroid screening among them.
The health of cleanup workers has been studied more extensively in Estonia by using additional data from the causes of death registry and the database of the Health Insurance Fund. In 1986-2011, the mortality of cleanup workers did not differ from that in the male population. But the suicide risk of cleanup workers was 30% higher than that of the male population. Non-cancer morbidity analysis revealed almost equal all-disease risk of cleanup workers and male population in 2004-2012. The workers experienced 1.7 times higher risk of thyroid diseases. Probably, this excess risk is not explained by radiation, but it indicates that the cleanup workers were kept under closer medical supervision.
Thus, a quarter of century after the Chernobyl accident, there is no evidence of increased morbidity or mortality of cleanup workers attributable to radiation doses received during cleanup activities.