Children of Chernobyl: Birth Defects, Deformities, Ailments

Understanding short- and long-term health issues caused by the nuclear meltdown

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. It resulted in the largest uncontrolled release of radiation (iodine-131, cesium-134 and cesium-137) in history.

More than 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer linked to radiation exposure in people who were under age 18 at the time were reported between 1991 and 2005. They came to be known as the Children of Chernobyl, and both researchers and the public have remained interested in their challenges.

This article discusses them and their health impacts in adulthood. It looks at Children of Chernobyl birth defects and deformities, as well as genetic mutations—and some of the more positive outcomes despite the early dire predictions.

View of the Chernobyl power plant
Yuri Kozyrev / Getty Images

1986 Nuclear Accident

On April 26, 1986, 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, up to 30% of an estimated 190 tons of highly radioactive material at the reactor was released into the atmosphere.

Weather patterns played a role in how the radioactive particles dispersed. About 60% of it fell on Belarus. It affected parts of Russia and northwest Ukraine before drifting into Poland and other European nations. That led to heightened radiation doses.

When compared with the average dose of a computed tomography scan used in healthcare (9 millisievert, or mSv), the typical exposures were:

  • 120 mSv for some 530,000 recovery operation workers
  • 30 mSv for 115,000 people who were evacuated
  • 9 mSv across the first 20 years for people still living in the contaminated zones

It would be decades before the full impacts of the release could be evaluated with more clarity. The surviving recovery workers, for example, are closely monitored because of their high cancer risk.

That’s also true of the Children of Chernobyl, especially in the Gomel Oblast region in Belarus, who were exposed not only to radiation in the air but also in milk tainted with radiation fallout.

Immediate Health Consequences

Two people died at the reactor when the accident occurred, and another 28 died from radiation sickness in the first three months. Nineteen additional workers died before 2005. A higher rate of leukemia cancers and genetic mutations (changes) were noted in workers who survived, though not other types of cancer.

The findings added to the long-term concern for serious health problems in the region, especially for the Children of Chernobyl. Those concerns were made worse by the poverty, poor nutrition, and lack of medical care in the region, as well as later years of armed conflict.

Did Chernobyl Affect Reproductive Health?

Radiation exposure from the 1986 Chernobyl accident did not cause a higher rate of pregnancy or delivery complications, according to a study of 170 people who were children or young adults at the time. However, fertility was affected, likely because of the effects of radiation on ovarian tissue.

Long-Term Health Consequences

Researchers generally conclude that an increased risk of thyroid cancer due to radiation exposure in childhood and adolescence was the main health effect of the Chernobyl accident.

Among those most exposed, studies also have confirmed a long-term higher risk of:

  • Cerebrovascular diseases, like stroke
  • Mental disorders and conditions, including depression
  • Cognitive impairment and dementia

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, as well as thyroid cancer risk.

The rate of BRAF genetic mutations and associated thyroid cancers in those exposed at a young age remains high.

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. More than a million children live in areas that are still contaminated. The health risks and impacts cited by the organization include:

  • In Ukraine, 6,000 children are born every year with genetic heart defects.
  • There has been a 200% increase in birth defects and a 250% 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 with genetic changes.
  • There has been a 38% increase in malignant tumors, a 43% increase in blood circulatory illnesses and a 63% increase in bone, muscle, and connective tissue system disorders.

What the Future Holds

Many Chernobyl survivors are still alive. Someone who was 10 years old at the time will turn 50 in 2026. Later generations were born into the regions affected by the fallout. One concern that overshadows their lives is whether the radiation exposure caused genetic mutations that are passed on to their own children.

Researchers think that may not be the case. An April 2021 study, published almost exactly 35 years after the accident, reported the completed gene sequencing on 130 children born between 1987 and 2002 and their parents, who were cleanup workers or exposed to radiation in the environment.

The study findings suggest that genetic changes are not passed across the transgenerational lines, and offered hope that the Chernobyl catastrophe will, indeed, one day be a historical moment that future generations need not fear.

But for now, more than a million children still live in the Chernobyl zone, where contamination remains and low-dose exposure through the food chain remains a risk.

14 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Mary Kugler, RN
Mary Kugler, RN, is a pediatric nurse whose specialty is caring for children with long-term or severe medical problems.