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Chernobyl study sheds light on Japan disaster

March 17, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
All eyes are on Japan as workers there deal with an earthquake-damaged nuclear power plant. What we've learned from nuclear accidents of the past are helping officials today.

Twenty-five years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine, a new report finds the higher cancer risk continues.

Experts agree what happened in Chernobyl was far worse than the situation in Japan. But there are important lessons to be learned.

Chernobyl, April 26, 1986: It's considered the worst nuclear power plant accident in history. And 25 years later, the fallout continues to affect those who were adolescents at the time.

An international team of researchers found those who absorbed the most radiation continue to have an increased risk for thyroid cancer that hasn't diminished over time.

"It doesn't surprise me that in Chernobyl that we're still seeing some of those cancers show up," said Dr. Linas Kazlauskas, Glendale Memorial Hospital.

National Institutes of Health (NIH) scientists monitored the health of more than 12,000 people who lived near the accident site. All were under 18 when the plant exploded.

The study results show those with the most exposure had a two-fold increase in radiation-related thyroid cancer.

But radiation oncologist Dr. Kazlauskas says this careful monitoring will save lives.

"We see that this is a serious problem but it's not as bad as you might think because it is such a highly curable disease," said Kazlauskas.

Kazlauskas adds the radiation threat in Chernobyl is far worse than what's occurring in Japan, but the lessons of Chernobyl are helping to minimize any potential health risks today.

"Our bodies do have the natural ability to try to repair that damage to the DNA, but at the same time we also like to minimize that dose as much as possible," said Kazlauskas.

A previous study of atomic bomb survivors in Hiroshima found the cancer risk declined after three decades.

So the study in Chernobyl will continue.

Of the 12,500 participants being followed, 65 were diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

Many were given preventive doses of iodine supplements in the two months following the accident.