Today, April 26th 2021, marks 35 years since the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the worst in history. As many as 200,000 immigrants from the immediate area and the region immigrated to Israel, starting in 1989 and up to ten years later in the wave of Soviet immigration to Israel. Ben-Gurion University of the Negev researchers, beginning in 1990, started a special clinic to address the health concerns of these immigrants and to collect data on their health status. Since then, a group of researchers have tracked these immigrants' hospitalizations from 1992 to 2017 and compared the rates to other groups in Israeli society. They found that the rate of any hospitalization for diagnoses often reported in the literature as associated with radiation exposure, were more frequent among the Chernobyl exposed immigrants when compared with other immigrants from the Former Soviet Union (FSU), immigrants from other countries to Israel and native-born Israelis.
In particular, women from low exposure areas around the disaster site (as reported by the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation) and those over 20 at the time of the explosion had higher rates of hospitalizations for circulatory issues, neoplasms, endocrine issues and eye problems more than 30 years later.
Their findings are in press in the Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health.
"This is quite unprecedented to find exposure effects so far removed in time from the accident," says lead researcher Prof. Julie Cwikel (pictured below), director of BGU's Center for Women's Health Studies and Promotion and a member of the Charlotte B. and Jack J. Spitzer Department of Social Work, "We found the effects especially among the low exposure women, where most studies have not found health effects among women who immigrated from the lower exposure areas as compared to high exposure areas."
Circulatory issues were 150% higher (RR=1.5), neoplasms 165% higher for those from high exposure areas and 177% higher (RR=1.77) for those from low exposure areas, endocrine issues 133% higher (RR=1.33) and eye problems 130% higher (RR=1.30) when compared to the Israeli-born comparison group.
However, respiratory and mental health issues were not found to be higher than the comparison groups decades later.
In a study from June 2020 published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine, Prof. Cwikel and her colleagues found that women exposed to the Chernobyl disaster had fewer children, higher rates of fertility treatments and were more likely to be anemic after giving birth.
"In light of our findings, medical care providers should include questions about exposure to the Chernobyl explosion when taking medical histories and those exposed should be vigilant about regular medical checkups," says Prof. Cwikel.
Additional researchers include: Prof. Eyal Sheiner, Ruslan Sergienko, Dr. Danna Slusky and Prof. Michael Quastel, all from the Faculty of Health Sciences. Prof. Quastel led the original study that collected data on this cohort starting in 1990 and Dr. Slusky followed up on this cohort in 2004. Prof. Cwikel led studies of the psychosocial effects of Chernobyl exposure among this cohort in 1994-1996.
The research was supported by an anonymous donation to the Center for Women's Health Studies and Promotion.