For the first time, researchers have detected elevated leukemia rates among children exposed in the womb to fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, raising disturbing questions about the effects of everyday, low-level radiation on pregnancy.
Infant leukemia rates more than doubled among Greek children whose mothers were exposed to the nuclear power plant's fallout while in the early stages of pregnancy, according to a study published today in the journal Nature.
The radiation exposure in Greece in the year after the accident was up to five times higher than what Greeks normally would have received.
That suggested to the researchers that even the low levels of radiation people are exposed to every day _ much of it naturally occurring in food, water and the air _ also could contribute to cancer. There are trace amounts of radioactive elements everywhere.
"This is going to create a lot of objections from people who think there is an overanxiety over low levels of exposure," said one of the authors, Dimitrios Trichopoulos of the Harvard Center for Cancer Prevention in Boston.
Among those born in the months after Chernobyl, children in parts of Greece exposed to the fallout were 2.6 times more likely to suffer from leukemia than their unexposed counterparts.
Radiation exposure in Greece was much lower than in regions closer to the accident, which occurred near Kiev, Ukraine.