- On April 26, 1986, a nuclear reactor in the town of Chernobyl, Ukraine, blew up, leaving nuclear remnants that affected people in a 200-mile radius for decades to come.
- Approximately 350,000 people were evacuated following the explosion over fears of radiation poisoning, and an “exclusion zone” was created to protect people from the nuclear fallout.
- Radiation poisoning can lead to cancer or death if left untreated. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, infections, diarrhoea, and low blood pressure.
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On April 26, 1986, a nuclear reactor in the town of Chernobyl, Ukraine, exploded, leaving remnants that would affect anyone in a 200-mile radius for decades to come.
To this day, the Chernobyl accident is known as the worst nuclear-reactor disaster in history. While the anniversary of the event just passed, it’s also getting extra attention thanks to HBO’s new miniseries “Chernobyl,” which looks at the aftermath of the event.
The explosion resulted in the evacuation of nearly 350,000 people due to fears about radiation poisoning. Meanwhile, severe radiation poisoning led to the deaths of two Chernobyl workers the same day as the disaster, as well as the deaths of 28 firefighters and Chernobyl plant operators in the three months following the explosion, according to the World Nuclear Association.
Here’s what to know about the deadly illness.
Andrew LeatherbarrowSevere radiation poisoning led to the deaths of two Chernobyl workers the same day as the disaster.
High levels of radiation exposure can lead to acute radiation syndrome
Radiation poisoning happens when a person is exposed to high levels of radiation over a short period of time. Radiation is the energy emitted from atoms, and when it’s released in high amounts, it has the ability to alter or damage DNA.
Symptoms of radiation poisoning include nausea, vomiting, hair loss, diarrhoea, infections, and low blood pressure, as well as illnesses like cancer, gastrointestinal (GI) syndrome, or bone marrow syndrome. Severity depends on the level of exposure, and if left untreated, acute radiation poisoning can lead to death.
People who died in the Chernobyl disaster experienced higher levels of radiation exposure than those who experienced effects of radiation fallout from living near the explosion.
If a person is exposed to smaller amounts of radiation, is exposed over a longer period of time, or is only exposed in certain areas of the body, they may also show symptoms of radiation poisoning without having the most severe form of the disease.
Chernobyl made experts more aware of this fact and caused them to change protocol after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, according to Dr. Fred A. Mettler, a clinical professor of radiology at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine and a former health effects team leader of the International Chernobyl Project.
“The lessons of Chernobyl were well learned and when [the] Japanese had Fukushima, they took to heart what happened there. They did not send anyone in there and didn’t have a person who got acute radiation syndrome or high doses,” Dr. Mettler told INSIDER.
Acute radiation poisoning happens in four stages
If someone develops radiation poisoning from high exposure, the effects happen in four stages: the prodromal stage, latent stage, manifest illness stage, and recovery or death stage.
In the prodromal stage, people experience symptoms in sporadic episodes or for days at a time, according to the CDC. In the latent stage, a person will look and feel healthy for days or weeks at a time without showing symptoms of the illness. Depending on the illness developed in the next stage (manifest illness), the latent stage can last for hours or weeks.
In the manifest illness stage, a person will typically develop one of three illnesses: bone marrow syndrome, gastrointestinal syndrome, or cardiovascular syndrome. Bone marrow syndrome has the highest survival rate of the three and happens when nuclear radiation destroys bone marrow. This can result in infections or hemorrhages. With gastrointestinal and cardiovascular syndromes, death is more likely because the radiation causes often irreparable damage to the internal organs.
A person with acute radiation poisoning who doesn’t recover will die within several months of being exposed to the radiation.
Radiation poisoning is difficult to detect, but if caught early on it can be treated
Since early symptoms of acute radiation poisoning are similar to the symptoms of other more common diseases, it can be difficult to detect the illness early on. But if someone believes they are affected, doctors can do blood tests to gauge whether they need treatment.
It can take a few weeks to two years to fully recover from the radiation and resulting symptoms.
- Read more:
- A Chernobyl ‘suicide squad’ of volunteers helped save Europe – here’s their amazing true story
- 19 stunning photos show what the radioactive area inside the Chernobyl nuclear plant looks like 32 years after the explosion
- Photos show what daily life is really like inside Chernobyl’s exclusion zone, one of the most polluted areas in the world
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