KIEV - Ukrainian children born with genetic mutations or harmed by radioactive food form a new generation of Chernobyl victims who could pass the accident's tragic legacy on to the next, specialists warned yesterday.
On the eve of Chernobyl's 16th anniversary, specialists who have worked in the region since a reactor exploded and spewed clouds of radioactivity over much of Europe said the fight against radiation-related illness was far from won.
''Today, 16 years after the accident, there remain some huge problems in several regions ... especially in terms of children's health and in terms of food,'' Olga Bobylova, deputy secretary of Ukraine's health service, told a news conference.
''[In areas surrounding Chernobyl] meat and milk in the private sector have high levels of radioactivity. ... There are also problems with the mushrooms and berries in the forests. ... Such food can have a profound effect on health.''
An aerial view of Ukraine's Chernobyl nucler power plant, the site of the world's worst nuclear disaster, is seen in this May 1986 file photo made a few days after the April 26 deadly explosion. In front of the chimney is the destroyed 4th reactor. Ukraine commemorates victims of Chernobyl catastrophe Thursday, April 25, 2002, on the eve of the 16th anniversary of the tragedy when a nuclear explosion, many times bigger that Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, sent a radioactive cloud over parts of then-Soviet Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and parts of Western Europe. The plant was closed for good in 2000, but many environmental problems persist. (AP Photo/STR/FILE)
Thousands of impoverished Ukrainians live in areas affected by radioactive contamination from the plant, which exploded on April 26, 1986 in the world's worst civil nuclear disaster.
To boost their meager daily meals they gather berries and mushrooms from fields and forests still contaminated by radioactive debris. Many are unaware or reluctant to think that the food remains a health risk so long after the accident.
''The state tries to give children good, clean food, but it cannot because of a lack of funds,'' Bobylova said.
''We need this in the future.''
The specialists urged Ukraine and the rest of the world not to allow Chernobyl to become a forgotten crisis - a term used first by the United Nations which hinted that funds could run out as interest in the disaster waned.
Evgeniya Stepanova, a specialist in radiation-linked illnesses, said children were becoming sufferers years after the explosion, which killed few people at the time.
The true casualty toll in the years since is a matter of intense controversy. Chernobyl has been blamed for thousands of deaths in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia and for a huge increase in thyroid cancer.
''[Research] has shown genetic mutations in sufferers of Chernobyl, both adults and children. ... Those children and adults are more likely to get cancer and pass on mutations to their children.''
Radiation is known to cause genetic mutation, and the rate of certain cancers goes up in areas exposed to nuclear fallout, scientists say.
Stepanova said it was time to turn the world's attention to those who had no choice but to suffer the consequences and those who could unwittingly become the next victims of Chernobyl.
''We have not paid enough attention to those people who are suffering,'' she said, almost shouting.
''Among all the problems caused by Chernobyl, the genetic [mutation] problem should come first. ... It is a huge problem.''
Copyright 2002 Reuters Ltd