Chernobyl’s Ripples Sicken Brooklyn Immigrants

Home Brooklyn Life Chernobyl’s Ripples Sicken Brooklyn Immigrants
A chimney towers over the sarcophagus that covers the destroyed Reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
A chimney towers over the sarcophagus that covers the destroyed Reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

When Dmitriy Khavin had a routine physical four years ago, his doctor noticed something amiss in the blood test. Though Khavin had no symptoms of illness, the test showed his thyroid gland was underactive. Hearing that, Khavin immediately thought of the Chernobyl nuclear accident.

Khavin is now 37 and lives in New York City, where he works as a video producer and camera operator, but on April 26, 1986, he was 11 years old and living in the Soviet Union about 370 miles from the Chernobyl nuclear plant when the its No. 4 reactor exploded, spewing radioactive fallout over 93,000 square miles, an area roughly the size of Wyoming.

“It’s always in the back of my mind sitting there,” Khavin said. “I don’t think about it daily, but when health issues come up, you can’t help but think about it.”

Khavin’s thyroid condition is treatable and he shouldn’t have any long-term medical consequences, he said. However, thyroid disease — especially thyroid cancer — remains an insidious vestige of the Chernobyl accident, and thyroid-cancer rates in Coney Island and Brighton Beach, which have a large number of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, are significantly higher than the state and national averages.

Dr. Ghassan Samara, a head and neck surgeon at Stony Brook University Medical Center on Long Island, said that most thyroid cancers are genetic, but exposure to radiation — like fallout from the Chernobyl accident — puts people at risk for the disease.

The reason is that the thyroid gland absorbs iodine, and radioactive iodine is one of the most common toxic particles in nuclear fallout. Children are especially at risk because their thyroid glands absorb so much iodine, which means they’re taking in much more radiation than an older person, Samara said.

What’s so dangerous about such exposure is that radioactive matter never leaves the body, and thyroid cancer can take 20, 30 or even 40 years to develop, according to Dr. Lijun Weng, the chief of nuclear medicine at Coney Island Hospital. For this reason, hospital officials started asking their physicians to screen patients at risk for thyroid cancer in 2003.

Like the radiation itself, thyroid cancer is often invisible. It can have no symptoms, Weng said, which makes screening so critical. If detected early, thyroid cancer is one the most easily treated cancers — patients can live another 30 or 40 years, Weng said. But if left untreated, Samara said thyroid cancer can kill in several ways: it could grow large enough to restrict breathing or it could spread to the lymph nodes or the lungs. A very curable thyroid cancer could transform to a very aggressive cancer called anaplastic carcinoma, he said.

“It’s not something you should live in fear of, but treat it with respect,” Samara said.

While it’s impossible to state that any individual case of cancer is caused by radiation from Chernobyl, Samara said that the higher-than-average thyroid cancer rates in the Coney Island area show a strong correlation between Chernobyl radiation exposure and the cancer.

According to the New York State Department of Health, the incidence rate for thyroid cancer among men in the Coney Island area is 8.4 per 100,000, 22 percent higher than the New York state average and 50 percent higher than the U.S. average. For women, the thyroid cancer rate is 29.7 per 100,000, 50 percent higher than the state average and 82 percent higher than the U.S. average.

About 100,000 residents of the Coney Island/Brighton Beach area are foreign-born and almost half of those residents are from Russia, the Ukraine, or Belarus, the three regions most affected by the accident at the Chernobyl power plant in northern Ukraine.

As the State Assembly’s first Soviet-born, Russian-speaking member, Alec Brook-Krasny was aware of this thyroid-cancer incidence rate when he was elected to the State Assembly in 2007. Brook-Krasny, a Democrat who represents the 46th District, which includes Coney Island and Brighton Beach, said he started talking to his Assembly colleagues about the Chernobyl-related health issue in his district, and he secured $490,000 in state funding for thyroid-cancer screening.

“They knew that there was a problem, but they never could have imagined that 200,000 people in New York used to live in the area that was affected by Chernobyl,” Brook-Krasny said. The 200,000 figure comes from a study conducted by Dr. Daniel Branovan of the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary, Brook-Krasny said. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, 5,000,000 people lived in areas contaminated by Chernobyl radiation.

Brook-Krasny said the state money was mostly spent on two screening machines. The state government no longer funds thyroid-cancer screening in his district, but Brook-Krasny said he is trying to restore funding. He said the program was popular in his district and even farther from home.

“I was visiting the Ukraine and I was speaking on the radio about the program and people were grateful,” Brook-Krasny. “They said it shows a lot about the compassion of the American people.”

Brook-Krasny said he was in Moscow during the Chernobyl accident– a safer 700 miles from Chernobyl — so he doesn’t have memories like Khavin does of avoiding strawberries in the market and being told to close the windows in the rain in the weeks after the accident.

Those immediate concerns quickly passed, Khavin said, but 25 years later he and millions of others still face uncertainty over the accident and its potential effect on their health.

A World Health Organization report released this year said that more than 6,000 thyroid cancers have been diagnosed in children and adolescents who were in the areas most affected by Chernobyl. The report said that increases in thyroid cancer cases are expected for many more years. In a July 12 column in The New York Times, Joe Nocera reported on an increase in thyroid diseases in areas of Poland affected by Chernobyl radiation.

Because thyroid cancer is easily treatable if detected early and fears of more deadly cancers have not materialized, Samara said the health effects of Chernobyl have been less severe than many predicted 25 years ago.

“I don’t think they’ve been as bad as people feared this would be,” Samara said. “Seven thousand cases of thyroid cancer sounds like a lot, but you’re talking about millions of people who were exposed.”

Still, the nature of radiation exposure means that patients who were exposed to Chernobyl radiation need to be vigilant about their health. Coney Island Hospital’s Weng said that even after 25 years thyroid cancers associated with Chernobyl are not showing any sign of slowing.

“Radiation is a lifelong risk,” she said.

That this risk is appearing in Brooklyn is an unusual historical legacy, but Samara said new immigrant populations often will affect the health profile of densely populated areas like Coney Island and Brighton Beach.

“Anytime you have a concentrated immigrant group,” Samara said, “they bring their culture with them, they bring their food with them and sometimes they bring their diseases with them.”

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