In the wake of Friday's earthquake and tsunami damage, as Japanese authorities struggle to cool the radioactive material inside the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor to prevent it from leaking, it's hard to believe that 25 years ago next month — April 26, 1986 — the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded in the Ukraine.
What health effects did those people suffer?
"Chernobyl was the worst nuclear power plant disaster in history, with an explosion that burned for days," says Dennis Kucik, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor in the UAB Department of Pathology. "More than 100 plant employees and clean-up workers suffered acute radiation sickness — nausea and vomiting — and about 30 died, mostly from infected burns or bone marrow failure."
Kucik, who studies the effect of radiation on cardiovascular disease, says though the Chernobyl explosion was devastating, there have been surprisingly few long-term health effects.
"There did not seem to be a significant increase in birth defects and, so far, the incidence of cancer is not significantly elevated," he says. "However, there has been an increased incidence of cardiovascular disease."
Research over the years has shown that prolonged exposure to radiation, including that from cancer treatment, excessive occupational exposure and atomic bombs, is associated with increased risk of developing plaque in the arteries, Kucik says. This likely explains the incidence of heart disease in those in the Chernobyl fallout zone.
Kucik says he does not expect another Chernobyl at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor.
"At Chernobyl, fallout was spread over several countries. It's not likely Japan will have an accident that big or see the health effects like Chernobyl."