City pollution ‘worse than Chernobyl’

Breathing in polluted city air may be worse for our health than the nuclear fallout of the Chernobyl disaster, according to a new report published in medical journal BMC Public Health.

The report studied the effects of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster and found it may be no greater than risks from much more common environmental and lifestyle factors.

“The perception is that there are big risks to public health from radiation exposure,” said Dr. Jim Smith, the author of the report.

“This study shows that for the population exposed to significant doses of radiation from the Chernobyl incident, the risks of premature death are no greater than those of being subjected to prolonged passive smoking, or of constantly over-eating. We can all face such health risks just going about our ordinary daily lives.”

Approximately 9,000 people who were exposed to radiation in the Chernobyl incident in 1986 would die from cancer, according to a UN report, although environmental agency Greenpeace has said the number of deaths linked to the incident top a quarter of a million cancer cases and nearly 100,000 fatal cancers.

Dr Smith, who has worked in the contaminated Chernobyl exclusion zone, evaluated and compared risks for those most affected by the disaster – emergency workers and people living nearby – the increased risk of premature death due to radiation is around 1%.

He says that is roughly the same as the risk of dying from diseases provoked by air pollution in a major city or the effects of inhaling other people’s tobacco smoke.

The doctor conducted a comparative assessment of mortality risks from ionising radiation, carrying out by estimating radiation risks for realistic exposure scenarios and assessing those risks in comparison with risks from air pollution, as well as obesity and passive and active smoking.

It is “well known” that air pollution in cities can lead to significant health problems, according to the report. Dr Smith cites the well known 1952 London Smog, which reportedly resulted in 4000 deaths in the capital also causing a surge in hospital admissions for respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Meanwhile a pollution incident in 1991 was associated with over 175 deaths.

“One of my reasons for comparing everyday risks with those of radiation contamination was the way in which contaminated Chernobyl refugees felt rejected by society,” Dr Smith said.

“Our understandable fear of radiation needs to be placed in the context of other risks we encounter in our daily lives if we are to properly understand, and respond to, the potential impacts of any future radiation incidents.”

The report also points out that such an analysis is “beyond the scope of this paper as significant uncertainties remain in morbidity endpoint in some of the factors studied … and cannot address some important ethical issues concerning differences between an imposed risk (radiation exposure in an extreme event) and (to a certain extent) voluntary risk such as active smoking.”

To see the full report click here.

Dana Gornitzki

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