Nineteen Years after Chernobyl, Misconceptions Prevail
26 April 2005, New York - Nearly two decades after the devastating accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on 26 April 1986, residents of areas affected by radioactive contamination in Belarus, the Russian Federation, and Ukraine still lack the information they need to lead healthy, productive lives, according to a new report from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Instead, misconceptions and myths about the threat of radiation prevail, promoting a paralyzing fatalism among residents about their own health.
Drawing on surveys and focus group
meetings involving thousands of people in each of the three countries over
2003-2004, the report makes a number of striking conclusions:
Information is lacking. Despite concerted
efforts by governments, scientists, international organizations, and the mass
media over the past 19 years, people living in the areas affected by the
Chernobyl accident express deep confusion and uncertainty about the impact of
radiation on their health and surroundings. Awareness is low of practical
steps to follow in order to lead a healthy life in the region.
Trust is a challenge. Overcoming mistrust
of information provided on Chernobyl remains a major challenge, owing to the
early secrecy with which Soviet authorities treated the accident, the use of
conflicting data by different organizations and institutions, and the often
complex scientific language in which information is presented. Local sources
are generally seen as more reliable than central ones.
Fatalism is pronounced. According to the
report, the public tends to attribute a wide variety of medical complaints to
Chernobyl, while at the same time neglecting the role of personal behavior in
reducing risk and maintaining health. This applies not only to radiation
risks, which are actually quite low, but also to areas in which individual
behavior is decisive, such as diet and misuse of alcohol and tobacco.
Poverty is a worry. Not surprisingly,
surveys showed that Chernobyl-area residents in all three countries are
preoccupied with their own health and that of their children, but concern
about low living standards is also extremely pronounced. Indeed,
socio-economic concerns were viewed as more important than the level of
radiation. Low household incomes and high unemployment promote uncertainty.
What worries you most today?
(Data from Russian survey, 748
respondents, multiple responses allowed)
The new study underscores the importance of promoting economic development and community self-sufficiency in the region while also coping with a legacy of environmental contamination. In this, it is consistent with a landmark 2002 UN report, Human Consequences of the Chernobyl Accident: A Strategy for Recovery, which concluded that many Chernobyl communities had succumbed to the passivity characteristic of a “culture of dependency.” Driven by this finding, UNDP has adopted a community-based approach to Chernobyl recovery efforts that focuses on restoring self-sufficiency and promoting a return to normal livelihoods in the affected region.
The new study draws on three country-specific reports prepared as part of the International Chernobyl Research and Information Network (ICRIN), an initiative launched by the UN to provide accurate and credible information to populations affected by the Chernobyl disaster. Funding for the first phase of the project was provided by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Further funding is now being sought for the next phase, involving widespread dissemination of information and further research.
The three country studies have yielded a
concise list of questions to which the Chernobyl-affected populations need
unambiguous answers. Meeting this need is complicated by misconceptions that
also persist outside the three affected countries. Fortunately, clear answers
may well be on the way. The Chernobyl Forum, a consortium of eight UN agencies
tasked with reviewing all available scientific research to reach unequivocal
conclusions about the health and environmental impact of Chernobyl, is set to
release its findings at a major conference in Vienna on 6-7 September 2005.
These findings should provide ideal raw material for dissemination to the
affected populations, helping them both to lead healthier lives and overcome a
paralyzing legacy of worry and fear