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Radiation: no safe levels

By Noel Wauchope - posted Wednesday, 24 October 2012


Studies on small animal life in Chernobyl and Fukushima have indicated genetic damage due to radiation. More recently reports have described birth defects linked to radiation-affected areas such as Fallujah in Iraq. But, as the nuclear lobby reminds us, a link is not proof. Even with reports emerging, the World Health Organisation (WHO) remains silent. Since 1959, an agreement signed between WHO and the International Atomic Energy Agency, and then a number of additional legal texts, prohibits the WHO from intervening in research into health effects of nuclear accidents.

If scientists studied consequences rather than causes, then high-rates of birth abnormalities may provide the proof required by the WHO to investigate. This is the approach adopted by the International Birth Defects Prevention Program in July 2012. Measuring radiation alone is difficult and can produce ambiguous results. But measuring babies born with malformations is more concrete. Facts are facts here. As Dr Vladimir Wertelecki says “ a baby that has no head is a baby that has no head.”

The initial program started in 2000, conducting a ten-year study on five provinces in the Ukraine, measuring and monitoring all newborn babies. The study, led by Dr. Wladimir Wertelecki of the University of Southern Alabama in Mobilewas done in co-operation with Ukraine health authorities. It was a descriptive epidemiological study. It could prove only a difference between geographical areas. It could not prove the cause of difference.

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Within 2-3 years it was obvious that the rates of spina bifida and other defects of the nervous system, were many times greater than expected, particularly in one province. A few years later an excess of conjoined twins was found. They found other nervous system problems, mainly microcephaly - a neurodevelopmental disorder in which the circumference of the head is more than two standard deviations smaller than average for the person's age and sex.After 10 years of study they published a report showing an excess of frequency of anomalies of nervous system and of conjoined twins.

This was found especially in the northern half of the province – an area that is a unique ecology niche – mainly wetlands. And this area also has a unique population, an ethnic group living there since recorded history. They live in small villages, very isolated, and they rely completely on local foods.These foods are all radioactive. The soil there is such that plants absorb many times more radioactivity. People there are absorbing much higher levels of radiation, 20 times more than there would be in soil 50 kilometers away.

One of the main causes of birth abnormalities is foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). FAS is a pattern of mental and physical defects that can develop in a fetus in association with high levels of alcohol consumption during pregnancy. However, Dr. Wertelecki and the six universities that joined the well-funded and extensive study found that in the Northern area of Ukraine alcohol use among pregnant women is statistically less than in the Ukraine in general. Alcohol therefore did not explain the birth abnormalities. Radiation is the obvious major cause.

Abnormalities in the developing foetus-teratogenesis

Little research has been done on the causes of foetus-teratogenesis in humans. Studies on non-human species show that foetus in first three months are about 1000 times more vulnerable to environmental effects.

Dr. Wertelecki’s team focused on teratogenesis and changes caused by environmental interference to a developing foetus with normal genes. This is distinguished from gene mutations, inherited from parents. The two processes have different effects. The genetic, inherited defects are most likely to cause mental disability. But with the teratogenic abnormalities, the baby, if it survives, most often is of normal intelligence.

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The teratogenesisprocess can begin very early, before the ovum has been implanted in the wall of the womb. If the line in the embryo is split it results in twins. If the split is incomplete it results in conjoined twins or Siamese twins. A fetiform teratoma is a failed Siamese twin.

Abnormalities that are started at a little later stage of pregnancy include spina bifida, (an opening in the lower back body wall), opening in front body wall with the heart on the exterior, and anencephaly (sometimes an absence of a head or of most of the skull and brain). Other effects are anophthalmia (missing eyeballs) or microphthalmia (tiny eyes).

Exposure to radiation has three types of effects: acute or immediate effects such as burns and radiation sickness; teratogenesis which impacts rapidly developing tissue as an external interference factor; and delayed cancers and genetic changes. Genetic changes have long-range effects, both before birth and even into the next generation. Chromosomes are affected in both egg and sperm, resulting in a hereditary chromosome problem.  

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About the Author

Noel Wauchope taught science before switching to nursing. She has several post-graduate qualifications, in health informatics, medical terminology and clinical coding. Noel now works in a public hospital.

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