More than 600,000 workers mopped up the mess left by the 1986 explosion of the Chernobyl-4 nuclear reactor in Ukraine, making them unwitting test subjects for a study of the long-term effects of radiation exposure. Fortunately, most of the crews received relatively low doses and have not reported extreme health problems. But a new study indicates their children may yet pay a serious price.
Researchers from the Academy of Medical Science in Ukraine and the University of Haifa in Israel studied the DNA of Chernobyl workers and their offspring. Children conceived after the accident had seven times as many mutations as did their older siblings, a sign that radiation exposure had damaged DNA in their parents' sperm and egg cells. Geneticist Abraham Korol of the University of Haifa, one of the study's directors, was shocked by how little radiation was required to boost the number of mutations to twice the normal incidence. He suspects it may be as low as one tenth of previous estimates.
Korol and his colleagues do not yet know what the altered genes do, but they have found disturbing signs that at least two mutations seem to be associated with regions containing cancer-promoting genes. They would like to monitor the effects of the mutations on the children's health over many years, but Korol worries he may not find the funds for such a lengthy study. Ukraine is so short on power and money that one of the archaic Chernobyl reactors remained in service until the end of last year.