The Children of Chernobyl

In 1986, a meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in what was then the Soviet Union showered radioactive particles all over Ukraine and neighboring countries. The children affected by the radiation have come to be known as the Children of Chernobyl. Here is a brief recap of the event and the health issues that Children of Chernobyl continue to face.

View of the Chernobyl power plant
Yuri Kozyrev / Getty Images

The Nuclear Accident

On April 26, 1986, at 1:23 a.m., an explosion and fire occurred in Reactor Number 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in what is now Ukraine. Before engineers and scientists could get it under control, 190 tons of highly radioactive material were released into the atmosphere. The radioactive particles rained down not only on Chernobyl, but all over Ukraine, as well as the neighboring countries of Belarus and Russia, and drifted over to other European countries such as Poland. Scientists estimate that the amount of particles released was equivalent to 400 times the radiation from the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The Chernobyl accident remains the largest peacetime nuclear disaster ever.

Medical Consequences

The massive radiation killed 31 people within a short time, mostly plant workers and people close to the accident site who died of radiation sickness. As time passed it became clear that the accident had left a number of serious long-term health problems for the people who lived in the area. These health problems were made worse by poverty, poor nutrition, and lack of medical care in the region.

Thyroid Cancer and Chernobyl Children

Most people around the world have forgotten the events of 1986. People in the area, however, are reminded of the nuclear accident whenever they look at young adults born during that time. Those who were exposed to high radiation levels when they were younger than 5 years old are most likely to suffer from health consequences, including stunted growth, poor dental health, and immune disorders. Chernobyl children also had 10 times higher than the normal rate of thyroid cancer.

Children of Chernobyl Today

According to Chernobyl Children International, as of 2015, the events of 1986 continue to affect millions of people who live in the fallout zone today and more than one million children live in areas that are still contaminated.

  • In Ukraine, 6,000 children are born every year with genetic heart defects.
  • Every year, more than 3,000 Ukrainian children die from lack of medical attention.
  • There has been a 200 percent increase in birth defects and a 250 percent increase in congenital birth deformities in children born in the Chernobyl fallout area since 1986.
  • In Belarus, 85% of children are deemed to be Chernobyl victims (they carry genetic markers that could affect their health at any time and can be passed on to their children).
  • UNICEF found increases in children’s disease rates, There has been a 38 percent increase in malignant tumors, a 43 percent increase in blood circulatory illnesses and a 63 percent increase in bone, muscle, and connective tissue system disorders.

What the Future Holds

Today, organizations such as the Chernobyl Children International work to provide medical care, medical supplies, clothing and other support for children of the Chernobyl region. It is not clear what the future of the children of the Chernobyl region will be, but for now, some are happier, healthier, and surviving illness because of the generosity of these organizations.

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  1. Demidchik YE, Saenko VA, Yamashita S. Childhood thyroid cancer in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine after Chernobyl and at present. Arq Bras Endocrinol Metabol. 2007;51(5):748-62. doi:10.1590/s0004-27302007000500012

  2. Chernobyl Children International. DID YOU KNOW….