New York, New York, October 1, 1997–Columbia University School of Public Health (CUSPH) will collaborate with scientists from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), Belarus and Ukraine in cancer studies relating to the Chernobyl nuclear tragedy which occurred in 1986, thanks to a $3 million contract from NCI. In announcing the initial three-year agreement at the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, CUSPH Dean Allan Rosenfield, MD, said, “We can expect that this landmark research will have far-reaching effects in terms of protecting the public’s health.”
Geoffrey Howe, Ph.D., head of CUSPH’s Division of Epidemiology, who will serve as principal investigator on the NCI contract, put it this way: “This is an opportunity to relate radiation exposure to cancer risks from radiation, which is a critical component in cost-benefit analyses of the use of nuclear power. If we do this properly, something good can come out of this disaster.” After six years of preparation, researchers are ready to proceed with what Howe believes will “probably be the best studies of radiation and thyroid cancer in children ever done.” Three specific investigations will be conducted simultaneously. They will look at thyroid disease in 15,000 children of Belarus, thyroid disease in 50,000 children of the Ukraine, and leukemia in 85,000 Ukrainian clean-up workers. These studies will be supported by epidemiological and clinical advice.
“The greater the radiation, the greater the cancer risk,” explained Howe. In the study of the children, who were measured for exposure within a few weeks of the event, thyroid glands – more – will be examined on an annual or biannual basis, allowing scientists to relate the radiation dose to the development of cancer. Children are especially sensitive to radiation-induced thyroid cancer partly because fallout in the immediate and surrounding areas, specifically radioactive iodine (I131), contaminates food and drink, especially milk, and goes on to concentrate in the small thyroid glands of children. Clean-up workers involved in the sealing, cleaning and removal of radioactive material, will be identified and located in specific areas of Ukraine, where many of them live. Leukemia, a sentinel for what may or may not occur with other cancers, is the first cancer that emerges from radiation and shows the strongest relationship to it in adults. Large amounts of radioactive material were released into the environment following the most serious accident in the history of the nuclear industry on April 26, 1986, at Unit 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine, then a part of the Soviet Union, near the present borders with Belarus and Russia. Unlike the instantaneous Hiroshima explosion during World War II, the Chernobyl calamity resulted in a protracted exposure, spread over several weeks and months, which may be less harmful than instantaneous exposures. Chernobyl studies are expected to continue for the next ten to 20 years. Columbia Health Sciences investigators joining Howe, NCI, Belorussian and Ukrainian colleagues are: J. David Burch, project manager, Cecily Medvedovsky, Lydia Zablotska, Judith Fayter, Daniel Fink, Charles Geard, Ellen Greenebaum, Anne Yuko Matsushima, Robert McConnell, Robert Reiss, Daniel Heitjan, Basil Worgul, David Diuguid, Joseph Graziano, Karl Perzin, John P. Bilezikian and David Brenner. Also participating are Columbia faculty from other disciplines including Frank J. Miller, Ph.D., chair, Slavic languages, Columbia College, and Mark Von Hagan, director, Harriman Institute.