Medical Mysteries Along the Most Radioactive River in the World

Health and medicine explained.
April 18 2013 12:58 PM

Life in a Real Nuclear Wasteland

Strange illnesses in one of the most contaminated towns in the world challenge what we think we know about the dangers of radioactivity.

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In 1986, soon after the Chernobyl disaster, Glufarida Galimova, working as chief doctor at a pediatric clinic in Muslumovo, her native town, was puzzled by the saturation of illness in her community. The illnesses were rare, strange, complex, and often genetic: hydrocephalic children, children with cerebral palsy, missing kidneys, extra fingers, anemia, fatigue, and weak immune systems. Many kids were orphaned or had invalid parents.

Galimova asked other doctors about it. They said the villagers were sick of their own doing, from poor diet and alcohol. Doubtful, Galimova investigated and learned that FIB-4 had a 50-year-old registry with Muslumovo’s health records. She requested the records be opened to the public. Her requests went unanswered. She went to the press and helped organize citizens’ groups. The security services accused her of disclosing state secrets, and she was fired from her job. Undaunted, Galimova teamed up with the chief of genetics of the Siberian Academy of Medical Science, Nina Solovieva. The two doctors tracked newborns and pediatric health in Muslumovo. When, in 1995, Solovieva died of breast cancer, Galimova continued alone. She found that more than half of the children born in Muslumovo in the 1990s suffered pathologies. In 1999, 95 percent had genetic disorders. Meanwhile, 90 percent of Muslumovo’s children suffered from anemia, fatigue, or immune disorders. Galimova examined the records of the city’s adults and found that all of 7 percent could be described as healthy.

In 1992, FIB-4 doctors finally declassified Muslumovo residents’ health records. Galimova discovered that in 1950, plutonium plant doctors came up with a new disease, diagnosed, so far, only in the Russian Urals—chronic radiation syndrome (CRS), caused by extended exposure to low doses of radioactive isotopes. The first young plant workers diagnosed with the syndrome complained of headaches, sharp pains in bones and joints, and a constant weariness. One memoirist described the terrible ache of CRS as a pain that made him “want to crawl up the walls.” They lost weight. Their gait slowed. They suffered severe anemia, wheezed heavily, and started to show signs of heart disease. The doctors learned to predict the onset of this mysterious new illness by changes in the blood, often signaled in severe anemia.

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Soviet radiation biology took a different trajectory from science in the United States. American researchers at that time were working with the highly politicized medical studies of Japanese bomb survivors. They narrowed the list of radiation-related illnesses to leukemia, a few cancers, and thyroid disease. Soviet doctors in formulating chronic radiation syndrome had grasped the effects of radiation on the body more holistically. They determined that radiation illness is not a specific, stand-alone disorder, but that its indications relate to other illnesses. They determined that radioactive isotopes weaken immune systems and damage organ tissue and arteries, causing illnesses of the circulation and digestive tracts and making people susceptible to conventional diseases long before they succumb to radiation-related cancers.

Over the years, FIB-4 doctors had diagnosed 935 people on the Techa River with chronic radiation syndrome. But as thousands of people in Ukraine worried about their exposures from the Chernobyl blast, Soviet medical officials backpedaled on the FIB-4 doctors’ original findings. In 1991, Angelina Gus’kova, the chief official voice in evaluating Chernobyl health problems, argued that in fact there were only 66 cases of chronic radiation syndrome among the Techa River people. The rest, she claimed, suffered from more prosaic diseases such as brucellosis, tuberculosis, hepatitis, and rheumatism caused by poor diets and sanitation. As American researchers supported by the Department of Energy have taken over as lead researchers of studies in Muslumovo, the diagnosis of chronic radiation syndrome has largely dropped from the radar. Meanwhile, Russian officials, worried about lawsuits, charged that many people in Muslumovo had dreamed up illnesses in order to sue for compensation. These people, they said, had no chronic radiation disease but were chronic welfare cases looking for handouts.

The trope of ignorant, genetically deficient, and drunken villagers is a common one in Russia. In the southern Urals in the past few decades, the cliché has been useful in glossing over the human suffering connected to uncontrolled dumping into the Techa River. In conferences debating the number of victims of the Chernobyl accident, officials who draw paychecks from nuclear lobbies make similar arguments about alcohol abuse and “radiophobia”—stress-related illnesses caused by fear of radiation. It would be a mistake, however, to allow the longstanding politicization of medical studies to overtake this very important, yet overlooked, place for our understanding of radiation’s effects on human bodies.

Reprinted from Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters by Kate Brown with permission from Oxford University Press USA. Copyright © 2013 Kate Brown.

Kate Brown is an associate professor of history at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. Her book Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters, supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship, is out now.