Cancer consequences of the Chernobyl accident: 20 years on

Received 14 March 2006, accepted for publication 31 March 2006, in final form 31 March 2006
Published 24 April 2006

Elisabeth Cardis, Geoffrey Howe, Elaine Ron, Vladimir Bebeshko, Tetyana Bogdanova, Andre Bouville, Zhanat Carr, Vadim Chumak, Scott Davis, Yuryi Demidchik, Vladimir Drozdovitch, Norman Gentner, Natalya Gudzenko, Maureen Hatch, Victor Ivanov, Peter Jacob, Eleonora Kapitonova, Yakov Kenigsberg, Ausrele Kesminiene, Kenneth J Kopecky, Victor Kryuchkov, Anja Loos, Aldo Pinchera, Christoph Reiners, Michael Repacholi, Yoshisada Shibata, Roy E Shore, Gerry Thomas, Margot Tirmarche, Shunichi Yamashita and Irina Zvonova


26 April 2006 marks the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident. On this occasion, the World Health Organization (WHO), within the UN Chernobyl Forum initiative, convened an Expert Group to evaluate the health impacts of Chernobyl. This paper summarises the findings relating to cancer. A dramatic increase in the incidence of thyroid cancer has been observed among those exposed to radioactive iodines in childhood and adolescence in the most contaminated territories. Iodine deficiency may have increased the risk of developing thyroid cancer following exposure to radioactive iodines, while prolonged stable iodine supplementation in the years after exposure may reduce this risk. Although increases in rates of other cancers have been reported, much of these increases appear to be due to other factors, including improvements in registration, reporting and diagnosis. Studies are few, however, and have methodological limitations. Further, because most radiation-related solid cancers continue to occur decades after exposure and because only 20 years have passed since the accident, it is too early to evaluate the full radiological impact of the accident. Apart from the large increase in thyroid cancer incidence in young people, there are at present no clearly demonstrated radiation-related increases in cancer risk. This should not, however, be interpreted to mean that no increase has in fact occurred: based on the experience of other populations exposed to ionising radiation, a small increase in the relative risk of cancer is expected, even at the low to moderate doses received. Although it is expected that epidemiological studies will have difficulty identifying such a risk, it may nevertheless translate into a substantial number of radiation-related cancer cases in the future, given the very large number of individuals exposed.