Decarbonise SA had a visitor recently. A new commenter took exception to the contents of the clip from Panadora’s Promise and fired off a bit of invective, albeit with some linked references. Here is the comment:
From the trailer:
1. Mark Lynas: “no increase in cancer amongst Chernobyl liquidators”
WHO: “a doubling of the incidence of leukaemia among the most highly exposed Chernobyl liquidators.” – http://www.who.int/ionizing_radiation/chernobyl/backgrounder/en/index.html
2. Mark Lynas: “no children born deformed as a result of Chernobyl”
Science: “the frequency of both congenital and fetal abnormalities in the Republic of Belarus has apparently increased.” – http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/stem.5530150734/abstract
3. Dude in denim shirt: “Greenpeace claims 1 million deaths from Chernobyl”
Greenpeace: “93,000 cancer deaths, possibly up to 160,000 deaths from all other causes.” – http://www.greenpeace.org/international/Global/international/planet-2/report/2006/4/chernobylhealthreport.pdf
So, in just a few seconds of trailer we find it’s packed with false claims. Looks like weak propaganda, not credible documentary.
Some of you may recognise this type of opening foray. No time wasted in saying hi, nothing phrased remotely as a question like “What about this?”. Just an attack on the work of a great film maker. This type of opening leaves little room for back-peddling, and sure enough my visitor simply became more and more hostile.
What I recognised as I prepared an adequate response was something else familiar: cherry picking, including choice phrases from abstracts.
I am not a working scientist. But I use science in my work which I describe as environmental decision-making. Semi-regularly I need to go beyond summary documents and return to source articles. Based on this I can say one thing for certain: abstracts are not an adequate representation of a scientific paper. Abstracts are basically bait. They are there to pull you into reading the paper. To craft an awkward metaphor, they usually include all of the sex, but little of the awkward conversation that follows…
It is either lazy or deliberately misleading to go no further than an abstract when throwing around information that can have a serious impact on the lives and well-being of others.
It’s encouraging to hear in this recent interview that the response to Pandora’s Promise seems so far to be one of essentially accepting the message as it is presented. But I am quite sure that the film will stimulate many to selectively rake through scientific papers on the impacts of nuclear power and try to inflame, rather than inform, our society’s discussion on nuclear power. My advice would be this: if something stinks, click on the link and read the reference yourself. We can’t let these important discussions be ruled by Abstract thinking.
My response to the commenter is reproduced in full below. Thank you to several other commenters who did a great job in exploring the issues in further detail.
Ok Petr, I have time for some more detailed response now. It requires some detail you see, because cherry picking takes time to un-pick.
Firstly, I do not regard UNSCEAR or WHO as corrupt. If you insist on dismissing the findings of these organisationS, then you are a conspiracy theorist, and that is not my problem. I do regard anything published in peer reviewed literature to be worthy of consideration, but not above criticism.
To your point 1. In my very first response, I demonstrated that you withdrew a single sentence from two paragraphs, excluding every single thing that worked against your contention. This is blatant cherry picking.
My reading of the situation is as follows. This may differ to others, I have read much but certainly not all of the relevant information on Chernobyl.
I refer you to the response I provided earlier to Phillipe Lefevre. These studies are regarded as poorly designed. UNSCEAR says in more detail
“low statistical power, uncertainties in dose reconstruction, and internal inconsistencies that that suggest potential biases or confounding factors that are difficult to address”.
Elsewhere they state
“Among Russian recovery operation workers with higher doses there is emerging evidence of some increase in the incidence of leukaemia. However, based on other studies, the annual incidence of radiation-induced leukaemia would be expected to fall within a few decades after exposure” and further, in more detail “Future studies may resolve these issues although after about 5-15 years post exposure, the risk of radiation-induced leukaemia declines over time and most newly diagnosed leukaemia cases will be unlikely to have been due to radiation”.
The Chernobyl Forum report says:
Some radiation-induced increases in fatal leukaemia, solid cancers and circulatory system diseases have been reported in Russian emergency and recovery operation workers. According to data from the Russian Registry, in 1991–1998, in the cohort of 61 000 Russian workers exposed to an average dose of 107 mSv about 5% of all fatalities that occurred may have been due to radiation exposure. These findings, however, should be considered as preliminary and need confirmation in better-designed studies with careful individual dose reconstruction.
Overall, the experts do not regard these findings as robust. There appear to be problems with sampling, dose reconstruction, biases, other confounding factors, plus the fact that leukaemia normally appears quite soon after exposure, not nearly three decades later.
The evidence is not strong enough. Your link does not support the contention of increased cancer in liquidators. Epidemiology is complex, and this has clearly not made the grade.
Point 2, you referred me to the 1997 paper by Lazjuk et al. Thanks for providing the link. The headline you provided seems hugely significant and contrary to my understanding, so I read it straight away. Others can too.
In summary, it’s a comparison of a group from a highly contaminated region against a control group in Minsk. Against a range of disorders, the authors find a hugely higher incidence of congential abnormality in the group from the contaminated region. However, it pays to read the paper closely.
Firstly, this on pre-existing conditions:
The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), which has studied the problem repeatedly, used a doubling dose of 1.0 Sv per generation to estimate the rate of abnormal births due to gene mutations and chromosome aberrations and found it to be 1,700 cases per 1,000,000 newborns (0.17%) in the first generation [l-41. However, the incidence of congenital anomalies in Belarus prior to the accident is 3.6-4.6 per 100 live births, and the doses received by the residents of contaminated areas are much lower than 1.0 Sv.
So prior to the accident, Belarus had a higher than normal rate of abnormality. Problem 1.
Problem 2. The sample.
“Disruption in human morphogenesis was studied in legal medical abortuses (products of conception obtained before 27 weeks of gestation by means of pregnancy termination at a medical institution at the woman’s request) obtained from pregnant women in Minsk-city (controls), and pregnant women from the Gomel and Mogilev regions with 137Cs contamination of at least 555 9Bq/m2 …Since all abortuses were included, selection bias was minimal for legal abortuses. However, since unreported abortuses remain undocumented and also unexamined in this analysis, selection bias may have occurred.
This is a study of a subset (recorded abortions) of a subset (all abortions) of all conceptions in Belarus. Not live births, legal abortions. 2,578 of them to be exact. Not great.
Problem 3: Several conditions they looked at have multiple causes. That makes attribution hard. I quote:
The frequency of all types of tissue anomalies was increased in the contaminated areas, with the highest increases seen for duplication of the kidneys and ureters, polydactyly, and defects of the neural tube. These defects have heterogeneous etiologies: polydactyly is frequently caused by dominant mutations, defects of the neural tube are mainly of multifactorial origin, and the genetic cause of kidney and ureter duplication is undetermined. We found no increase of monosomies or trisomies in the abortuses, nor did we find a direct teratogenic effect resulting in the death of cells in the embryo from which organs originate. These findings make it impossible to conclude that radiation-induced changes in chromosome translocation frequency are responsible for the increased frequency of congenital malformations in abortuses from women living in the contaminated areas.
This all features in the paper before the authors really get stuck into themselves in the discussion section on page 259. They say this about the problems with the study:
First, it is possible that increased ascertainment of cases with congenital malformation may have taken place in the contaminated (compared to control) regions of Belarus.
So basically, more looking means more finding. This is common.
Second, although radiation exposures were estimated for populations, doses received by individuals are not known at this time. Because individual dose varies greatly, depending upon activities at the time of and for several weeks to months after the accident, assessment of individual radiation dose received will be necessary to determine with greater certainty whether radiation exposure places individuals at risk for these disorders.
So, there is NO information in this study to suggest that the mothers of the abortuses actually received any kind of elevated dose of radiation. Basically, this is NOT an epidemiological study.
Third, it is possible that selection bias may have occurred, as an analysis of unreported abortuses was not possible.
This refers back to the sampling problem. There is every chance that many healthy foetuses were aborted in the aftermath of Chernobyl outside of the system. In fact, this is known to be the case.
Despite these issues, the authors then say
“Nevertheless, we believe that our results are provocative and require further study to determine whether our hypothesis is correct.”
You have relied on this paper to refute the statement by Lynas. The authors themselves describe it as a “hypothesis” that has not been shown to be correct. I will agree with them on one point, it is provocative. The paper quite simply gives nothing persuasive whatsoever. It has been 16 years since it was published. Where the hell is the follow up to this “provocative” paper? Perhaps with all those weakness, one on the other, it really was not worth it?
As to the experts, WHO (2011 25th Anniversary Frequently Asked Questions) says this
In the Chernobyl-affected regions, there is no evidence of decreased fertility among males or females in the general population. However, birth rates may be lower in contaminated areas because of a high rate of medical abortions. Since 1986, there has been a reported increase in congenital malformations in both contaminated and uncontaminated areas of Belarus which predated Chernobyl and may be the result of increased registration of such cases. Based on dose levels to which the majority of the population was exposed, there is unlikely to be a major effect on the number of stillbirths, adverse pregnancy outcomes, delivery complications, or the overall health of children, but monitoring remains important.
The Chernobyl Forum Report (2006) says this:
Because of the relatively low dose levels to which the populations of the Chernobyl affected regions were exposed, there is no evidence or any likelihood of observing decreased fertility among males or females in the general population as a direct result of radiation exposure. These doses are also unlikely to have any major effect on the number of stillbirths, adverse pregnancy outcomes or delivery complications or the overall health of children.
Birth rates may be lower in ‘contaminated’ areas because of concern about having children (this issue is obscured by the very high rate of medical abortions) and the fact that many younger people have moved away. No discernible increase in hereditary effects is expected based on the low risk coefficients estimated by UNSCEAR (2001) or in previous reports on Chernobyl health effects. Since 2000, there has been no new evidence provided to change this conclusion.
There has been a modest but steady increase in reported congenital malformations in both contaminated’ and ‘uncontaminated’ areas of Belarus since 1986; see Fig. 4. This does not appear to be radiation-related and may be the result of increased registration.
As to your point three, I have read the other comments and that was roughly my understanding; that Greenpeace funded the work and that the author is Greenpeace affiliated. I do not know either to be true. I don’t have a comment.
So, what you have provided to support your assertions did not support them at all, unless you are prepared to dismiss the work of UNSCEAR, WHO and the Chernobyl Forum. Since you opened your engagement with a link to WHO to support your position, this would seem a difficult thing to do.
Since then you have been rude, abusive and insulting to both me and others. You have dismissed expert work with conspiratorial accusations, dumped on your own chosen source of WHO and damned people you disagree with as “amateurs” while referring me to ratical.org. You have referred to modelled outcomes of harm as “evidence of cancer”. You have jumped around from source to source, placing link bait with big scary numbers, rather than having the patience to wait for me to make an adequate response. You have tried to move the debate to problems of cost for nuclear power. You have called me and others a climate denialist, a propagandist, and a quasi religious ideologue. On your first visit to the site. Nice.
Normally, I moderate this sort of crap right away. But you have been such an excellent example of what this film is talking about, that I wanted to get you on the record in all your glory. Now of course, I am happy to say goodbye. But thanks, you have been an excellent advertisement for my position on nuclear power.