Chernobyl's harm was over-estimated, UN report says

The nuclear disaster at Chernobyl almost 20 years ago has so far claimed fewer than 50 lives, according to a study by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN Development Program and the World Health Organization.

But about 4,000 people could eventually die from exposure to radiation released when a reactor caught fire in the Ukrainian forest and showered Europe with a plume of radioactive particles.

"This was a very serious accident with major health consequences, especially for thousands of workers exposed in the early days, who received very high radiation doses, and for thousands more stricken with thyroid cancer," said Burton Bennett, chairman of the Chernobyl Forum, which released the study.

"By and large, however, we have not found profound negative health impacts to the rest of the population in surrounding areas, nor widespread contamination," reports Guardian.

More than 1,000 workers on the site were heavily exposed on the first day. About 200,000 emergency and recovery workers were exposed in the next year, and of these, 2,200 could die prematurely.

An estimated 5 million people live in areas contaminated by the fire and about 100,000 still live in regions classified as areas of "strict control". There were 4,000 cases of thyroid cancer in children and adolescents, and at least nine children died.

According to Times Online, the 600-page UN report says a lack of accurate information about the accident’s consequences has made the mental health impact "the largest public health problem created by the accident."

"These problems manifest as negative self-assessments of health, belief in a shortened life expectancy, lack of initiative and dependency on assistance from the state," the agency said in a statement.

"Persistent myths and misperceptions about the threat of radiation have resulted in ’paralyzing fatalism’ among residents of affected areas."

Teachers and others with influence must receive better information so they can counter false fears by replacing mythology with facts, said Kalman Mizsei of the UN Development Program.

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