Rosalie Bertell , MD, PhD.
She is the recipient of five honorary degrees. Among her many awards can be numbered
the Alternative Nobel Prize, Right Livelihood Award; World Federalist Peace Award;
Ontario Premier's Council on Health, Health Innovator Award; the United Nations
Environment Programme Global 500 award and the Sean MacBride International Peace
Prize. She has recently been selected to be one of the 1000 Peace Women nominated for
the Nobel Peace Prize, 2005. Rosalie has published numerous articles, reviewed articles
for professional journals and was editor of the journal, "International Perspectives in
Public Health". Her books, "No Immediate Danger: Prognosis for a Radioactive Earth"
and "Planet Earth: The Latest Weapon of War" can be obtained from IICPH. "Handbook
Chernobyl: An Unbelievable Failure to Help
By Dr. Rosalie Bertell, Ph.D., GNSH
The disaster at the Chernobyl power reactor near Kiev, which began on 26 April 1986, at
1:21 AM, was one of the worst industrial accidents ever suffered in the world. Yet the
global community, which is usually most generous in pouring out aid to a stricken
community, has been slow to understand the scope of this disaster and to reach out to the
most devastated people of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. It is the purpose of this
discussion to probe the causes of the confusion of perception and failure of response to
the needs of these victims. Clearly the problem is one of communication, and the true
picture has not been well communicated to concerned people of all countries and faiths.
Has the International Atomic Energy Agency betrayed the victims of the Chernobyl
disaster because of its plans to promote the “peaceful atom” nuclear program in the
developing world? Has the World Health Organization failed to provide clear and reliable
health effect information and data on the extent of the suffering and death resulting from
this disaster? Are there other historical problems or actors which are now seen to interfere
with reasonable handling of the late effects of a nuclear disaster? Most importantly, what
can be done to remedy this tragic situation, both assisting those most hurt by the late
effects of Chernobyl, and preventing such injustice from occurring in future? At this time
of global crisis over climate change, with the current promotion of nuclear energy as a
“solution”, it is important to revisit the Chernobyl event and to take a sober second look
at the reality of the nuclear energy experiment, and the management of its hazards.
Although I sent my Handbook for Calculating the Health Effects of Exposure to Ionizing
Radiation1 to the Moscow Hospital 6, where the worst exposed first responders were
being treated, as soon as I learned about the Chernobyl accident, my first trip to Kiev and
Chernobyl was in 1989, three years after the disaster,. None of the pictures I took in 1989,
within the 30 km. exclusion area or near to the sarcophagus, turned out - probably
because the level to radiation being emitted from the failed reactor #4 was still too high.
I learned that the area around Chernobyl was once the cradle of icon painting and I saw
centuries old icons strewn on the floor of the nearby new library. These medieval icons
were now too contaminated with radioactivity to handle. The apartment buildings in
Pripyat were abandoned, schools closed and playground swings and slides stood idle.
Even a forest had been buried as radioactive waste. While a few physicians were alarmed
at the health problems they were seeing, most were telling people that they did not have
radiation sickness, and their worries were merely radiophobia.
By my second visit in 19912, five years after the disaster, there was no longer any talk of
radiophobia, rather, the increased illnesses among children and the cleanup workers had
become seriously disturbing. Dr. Maya Fomina, the physician who led the emergency
medical team at the disaster site in 1986, told me that while about 33% of the clean-up
workers were ill in 1987, 67% were ill by 1991 with a wide variety of chronic disorders.
These workers were between ages 18 and 30 at the time of the disaster, and in prime
health. Dr. Fomina had just lost a 22 year old assistant, one of her best medical
technicians, also a worker in the emergency tent3. She commented softly: “I did not mean
to give a death sentence when I chose her!”
Children exposed to Chernobyl fallout were experiencing chronic adult diseases of the
respiratory and blood systems, gastritis, nervous system diseases, cardiovascular diseases
and other diseases of internal organs. In general, in 1991, the level of serious illness in
children was about six to seven times above normal, while serious illness in the clean-up
workers was three to four times above normal. Medical technicians brought in to help in
the emergency were not trained in identifying radiation related blood changes, so they
often missed the early symptoms of developing physiological abnormalities4. There was
little over-all control of medical and environmental exposure records to assist researchers
who would later monitor the changes in health.
The numbers of victims was staggering: 650,000 workers were directly involved in
fighting the fire, assisting evacuees, and cleaning-up. About 116,000 people had been
evacuated from the 30 km. radius, which included the thriving city of Pripyat and more
than 70 other settlements. Additionally 77 administrative districts in 12 regions of
Ukraine, including more than 1500 villages, residential area and towns were heavily
contaminated with radioactive material. It is estimated that by 1991, about 200,000
people were still living in the high risk areas of Ukraine, and many more were exposed to
the nuclear fallout in Belarus and Russia5. Yet internationally, there was little outpouring
of help and concern by the general public!
Even in 1991 there was widespread concern in Ukraine about 150,000 people, including
60,000 children exposed to high levels of radiation to the thyroid gland (2000 mSv for
children and 5000 mSv for adults). This problem was not discussed or admitted
internationally until the release of a paper in the British Journal Nature6 and the World
Health Organization (WHO) call for help to aid child thyroid cancer victims in 1999. Dr.
Keith F. Baverstock, Head of the Department for Radiation and Health at the European
Office of WHO in Rome, has testified that the International Atomic Energy Agency
(IAEA) experts knew of at least twenty cases of rare childhood thyroid illness in Ukraine
Dr. Keith F. Baverstock visited the Gomel Region of Belarus, which had received
significant fall out from Chernobyl, and noted the dramatic increase in thyroid cancer
especially in very young children. Even in major European or American cities, one rarely
saw more than one or two cases in a year, and on his visit to a hospital in Minsk he saw
11 such cases in one day. Baverstock stressed the problem of the very close dependency
of the people of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia on their environment:
“(T)hey depend on the earth to grow things and feed themselves and their animals,
on the rivers and lakes for fish and water, and on the forest for its fruits of berries
The International Chernobyl Project
In 1989, the former Soviet Union, its credibility shattered because of its non-handling of
the Chernobyl disaster, invited the IAEA to review the health impacts. In 1991 the IAEA
reported that no health problems in the victims of Chernobyl could be linked to radiation!
This 1991 report on health was chaired by Professor Fred Mettler, Jr., Director of the
Medical Expert Group of the IAEA International Chernobyl Project. Dr. Mettler, Jr., MD,
was Chair of the Department of Radiology, at the University of New Mexico, School of
Medicine, Albuquerque, NM, USA. On April 24, 2006, the twentieth anniversary of the
Chernobyl disaster, Dr. Zenon Matkiwsky gave the following rebuttle of Dr. Mettler’s
“In July 1992, I took part in a U.S. Congressional Hearing and I listened to the
testimoney of Dr. Fred Mettler, Jr., Director of the IAEA heath study, as he
testified before a U.S. Senate Subcommittee. Dr. Mettler assured Senator Joseph
Lieberman that his organization had conducted the most comprehensive
investigation possible on the Chernobyl survivors and that the IAEA had found no
evidence of perceptible increase in thyroid cancer in children.”.
Dr. Matkiwsky continuted:
“Had he [Dr. Mettler, Jr.] bothered to visit the Institutes of Endocrinology in
Minsk or Kiev, or had he visited any of the regional children’s hospitals in
Chernibiv, or Gomel or Zhytomyr, he would have found ample evidence that
children were being stricken with an extremely rare form of cancer at alarming
Dr. Fred Mettler, Jr., ICRP and UNSCEAR
In both the British Journal Nature11 and Report of the World Health Organization
(WHO)12, Dr. Keith Baverstock quickly validated the Belarus and Ukraine research
documenting the then 30-fold increase in thyroid cancer, and discrediting the IAEA
report of Dr. Mettler. Yet the latter researcher was rewarded with a position on the Main
Committee (now called The Commission) of the International Commission on
Radiological Protection (ICRP). Dr. Mettler was also chosen as the U.S. representative on
the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation
(UNSCEAR). These inter-agency connections are important for understanding the
strange silence on the suffering of those exposed to Chernobyl fallout.
UNSCEAR, in 1955 and IAEA, in 1957, were set up by the United Nations (UN) in
response to the U.S. President Eisenhower’s Peaceful Energy talk at the UN, in 195313.
The IAEA was mandated to perform two tasks — to assist countries in harnessing nuclear
energy for peaceful purposes and to carry out inspections to ensure that any assistance a
country received from another was used exclusively for peaceful purposes and not
diverted to developing any nuclear weapon. UNSCEAR was to report on the adequacy of