Chernobyl 25 years later: Less cancer than feared but more PTSD

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Twenty-five years ago today, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukrainian SSR in the former Soviet Union near the Polish border exploded, causing a global frenzy of fear and panic. It was the worst nuclear power plant accident in history at the time. The incident raised concerns over the safety of the nuclear power industry and the potentially adverse health effects associated with it, and now the world faces similar questions in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan.

Though people in Japan are rightfully frightened over the prospect of various health risks, including thyroid cancer, due to radiation exposure, a new perspective piece in The Lancet by Dr. Kirsten B. Moysich and colleagues of Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York, brings encouraging news. They point out that the cancer consequences from the Chernobyl accident were actually much lower than expected. But what is even more surprising is that the psychological effects similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from the accident were disproportionately large by comparison with the biological risk. The psychological distress is further exacerbated when information about the health risks associated with radiation exposure are poorly or even inaccurately relayed to the public. Health officials should take heed of this important finding as Japan works to repair itself from its tsunami and earthquake devastation.