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Thursday, July 1, 1999 Published at 15:43 GMT 16:43 UK


'Chernobyl cancer might have been prevented'

Fallout from Chernobyl covered much of Eastern Europe

The toll of thyroid cancer carried by the fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster could have been prevented, new evidence suggests.

And a British cancer expert agrees that had a simple drug been given to young children in the former Soviet Union who were in the path of the radioactive cloud which covered much of Eastern Europe, much suffering could have been prevented.

The disaster, in 1986, happened when a reactor at Chernobyl, in the now-independent state of Ukraine, melted down, throwing large quantities of radioactive isotopes into the atmosphere.

One of these, radioactive iodine, is absorbed by the thyroid gland, particularly in very young children, where it can cause cancer, in some cases many years later.

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The levels of contamination were highest in Belarus where, in one region, the rate of thyroid cancer in the very young was 100 times normal levels.

Lower pollution levels were comparable between Ukraine and Poland.

However, while a new study reveals the high incidence of thyroid cancer in young Ukrainian children - 10 times greater than normal levels, the levels in Poland have not yet risen significantly.

Tablet handout was 'crucial'

Many scientists believe that the swift distribution of potassium iodide tablets - which block the uptake of radioactive iodine into the thyroid - was crucial in preventing cancers.

Professor Sir Dilwyn Williams, who runs a thyroid cancer research unit attached to Cambridge University, says that a similarly prompt response by the then Soviet authorities could have made a huge difference.

He said: "One of the major lessons we have learned is the extreme sensitivity of the youngest children.

"They should have done more to make sure potassium iodide was available. That isn't impossible to do."

He said that he was sure that the mammoth efforts by the Poles, led by just one expert, to distribute the drug had prevented suffering.

Public health doctors take charge

In Britain, public health doctors in every health authority have been given detailed guidance on how and when to distribute potassium iodide in the event of a radioactive disaster.

The guidance stresses that the drug must if possible be given within three hours of any exposure to radioactive iodine.

It suggests that some pills should be distributed in advance to inaccessible households, police stations, hospitals and pharmacies.

Britain is ahead of the US in this respect - proposals to stockpile potassium iodide at nuclear power stations were only put forward last week after years of lobbying.

Thyroid cancer, which often does not manifest itself for several years after exposure, is usually a very treatable cancer, either by surgery, chemotherapy, hormone treatment, or ironically, radiotherapy.

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