Pacing the Soviet Cleanup

The Washington Post
(Copyright 1992)

The article by Alfred Friendly Jr., "Warning: The Former U.S.S.R. Is Hazardous to Your Health," in the May 10 Outlook section emphasizes the number of radiation and other environmental hazards in the former U.S.S.R. One must, however, be careful about overstating some problems while understating the others.

For example, the quoted claim by Murray Feshbach that 4,000 people who helped in the Chernobyl cleanup have already died prematurely is almost certainly on overestimate. The death rate in the U.S.S.R. among 20 to 35-year-olds (the major group) is several times the West European average, so 8,000 of the 600,000 persons would be expected to die from some cause in five years.

There are two major cohorts in Chelyabinsk that have been studied by the Russians. Dr. Mira Kossenko, recently visiting the United States at our invitation, described how the leukemia rate doubled among the villages along the Techa River, where 3 million curies of radioactivity were dumped from the plutonium plant in the early 1950s. But this was only 37 cases in total. Two years ago, data published on the occupational exposures at the same plant showed cancer rates had doubled (some workers received 200 rems in a year) but were still only several hundred cases and overshadowed by generally high occupational risks in the U.S.S.R.

The most urgent need is to understand the effects of pollution and prioritize the problems. Who is at higher risk? Those still living in the countryside along Techa River or the residents of the polluted cities? Given the economic problems in Russia and the limited resources for remediation of the contaminated sites, tough choices are inevitable. We propose to bring American expertise to the comparison of health risks at different sites, thus helping Russian authorities make informed decisions and convey them to the public.

If we encourage the former U.S.S.R. to clean up as much as Adm. James D. Watkins has promised the American people the Department of Energy will clean up, the Russians will not have enough money for even one site. But 90 percent of the reduction can probably be done for less than one percent of the cost.

Cambridge, Mass.

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