Chernobyl Liquidators' Health
as a Psycho-Social Trauma









5.2. Information-related harmful factors of the Chernobyl Disaster: Flaws of information about Chernobyl and its hazards as a major harmful factor

       A very remarkable feature of the Chernobyl Disaster was the under- and misinformation of all affected categories about the features of the Disaster, including its harmful factors and their possible effects. This turned out to be a major, in great many cases — the dominating harmful factor of the Chernobyl Disaster.
       Earlier in this paper, speaking about various facets of the liquidators' situation, I have touched upon the issue of information distribution. In this subchapter the importance of information, and possible effects the information-related flaws may have upon the Chernobyl-affected (the liquidators in particular) will be discussed. This factor is still poorly defined, and I will draw attention to its different aspects and facets; in particular, I will outline the extreme importance of the supply of information for normal functioning of the human system, and list some requirements to such information. Then I will trace periods of the Chernobyl Disaster as an information event (as presented in literature), and information periods of the Chernobyl liquidators' life. Lack of important information and/or inadequate information as essential harmful factors in the post-zone life of the liquidators will be discussed. Finally, special attention will be paid to such — not apparent to the outsiders — hazard as anticipation of negative health consequences by the liquidator and his social environment.
       It should be noted that information has an outstanding importance for functioning of the human system. One should remember that a need to receive information from the environment (that is, the information about the environment) is among basic needs of a human being.
       Another important point is that, in a stressful situation, the information obtained should be relevant to the task of coping with the stress. Finally, an obvious requirement for the information is that it should not only be available and relevant — but truthful, correct; otherwise it is not information — it is misinformation.
       All three requirements to the information — as for its availability, relevance and accuracy — have not been met at all stages of the Chernobyl Disaster. It follows from the studies (Antonov and Pyetrichenko 1995; Bezverkhaya 1995), which outlined the following information periods of the Chernobyl Disaster:
       1986 — “the period of information explosion and hushing up of the real scale of the accident at the Chernobyl NPP” (Bezverkhaya 1995). It is a very interesting combination indeed — “information explosion” and simultaneous “hushing up”! The combination may actually result only in one phenomenon — misinformation explosion. It is no wonder that the researchers (Antonov and Pyetrichenko 1995) define the 1st information period of the Disaster as having “features of the period of shock, but prolonged in time” (lasting, according to the authors, approximately until the first half of 1987).
       1987—1989 — period of keeping the information about the disaster classified (Bezverkhaya 1995); corresponds with 2nd period (Antonov 1995) of the lack of information and accumulation of pathogenic information potential by rumours and speculations (until mid-1988).
       1990—1992 — the period of maximum of information, including scientifically ungrounded and controversial information (Bezverkhaya 1995); according to (Antonov and Pyetrichenko 1995): 3rd period (starting with autumn 1988) — “owing to glasnost, the Chernobyl topic broke through into mass media, and the radiation-sensitised population was exposed to an avalanche of very controversial information”.
       The studies clearly show that NONE of the periods of the Chernobyl Disaster can be considered as meeting the needs of the proper mitigation in the information sphere. (As I will show further, this unfortunately remains true for the present period of the Chernobyl Disaster characterised also by the decrease of amount of information about Chernobyl, with outbursts on rare occasions (like anniversaries, or adoptions of new “Chernobyl laws”)).
       Bezverkhaya (1995) mentions also the “period of information stabilisation” (1993—1994), and makes a general conclusion about flaws of information strategy, which resulted in the crisis of trust to official information and a high level of psychic-emotional strain of the affected population.
       Natural consequence of this circumstance is, for example, the fact that in 1993 in four regions of Russia more than one half (i.e. majority) of the respondents were confident that specialists and medical doctors conceal data about Chernobyl consequences (Arkhangelskaya et al. 1995). Similar results, according to the authors, were obtained for Ukraine and Belarus.

       Now let us trace a typical way of the “exposure” of a liquidator (of, say, the year of 1986) to the information factor:
       1. He was affected as an ordinary citizen (worries about his health, his family, possible contamination of his city, town, village, fate of his crops, enterprise, occupation/job).
       2. He was drafted to serve in Chernobyl. Military liquidators, drafted from reserve, were not informed about where they would serve and what would do; the civil liquidators, as a rule, were not informed about the actual radiation danger of the place of their future work and stay.
       3. During work in Chernobyl he did not know his actual exposure to radiation. There were many rumours about actual radiation levels, about new and new releases from the broken unit 4 (both before and after it was encased in the Sarcophagus), about the health consequences which would follow etc. An extreme importance of knowledge of the actual irradiation dose can be illustrated with an observations of Kovalenko and Risovannyj (1989: 23): those who suffer acute radiation sickness, are much less prone to fears than those actually non-affected, “First of all those who do not know what irradiation doses they have got suffer from “radiophobia”.”
       4. Next stage: After the work in the Chernobyl zone, the liquidator was returned back, and enveloped, on the one hand, into information vacuum about probable (and often quite predictable, well-known for professionals) impacts upon physical and psychic health, and, on the other, into misinformation “avalanche” (both from formal and informal sources) about the future consequences of his encounter with the zone. As for the former factors, the liquidator was not aware of the possible reactions of his body and mind to his Chernobyl exposure, and these reactions took him by surprise. These were, for example, such unpleasant phenomena as irradiation reaction of blood several months following the exposure, physical weakness, lack of energy, sleepiness, and essential psychic disturbance. Various manifestations of the post-traumatic stress disorder should be listed here, including the effects on interpersonal relations, which, e.g., resulted in family problems (including divorces of many liquidators).

       I will deal in more detail with two facets of the information hazard in the post-zone life of a liquidator: reaction of the liquidator, and reaction of his social environment.
       1. Anticipation of negative health consequences by the liquidator. Threat of delayed health effects from radiation can lead to a significant stress, and this may result in illness (opinions presented in a review (Earle and Cvetkovich 1995: 131—138)). As we see, even imaginary fears can result in quite real disorders of health. The surveys support this conclusion: Until now the threat of irradiation effects in the past, present and future remains the main and most important stressor for all survivors: 89% of the examined are anxious about it, the number does not show tendency to decrease with time (Nyagu and Loganovsky 1997); 96.6% of the studied liquidators considered the irradiation a reason of development of the diseases of cardiovascular system. However, according to the paper, the majority of the studied lack knowledge both about effects of radiation upon the human system, and about “normal” factors of risk for the cardiovascular system (Khomazjuk et al. 1995).
       2. Anticipation of negative health consequences by the liquidator's social environment. After the zone, the liquidator has been existing in a tense field of opinions about medical consequences he may experience; the opinions he may encounter with vary from “Poor wreck, you are still alive and moving?” of some good-wishing anti-nuclear radical — to “Stop malingering!” of pro-nuclear, pro-official sources, and of certain categories of people.
       One of the most eloquent examples of this type of (potentially) harmful situation was the one I ran into several days after my return from the Chernobyl zone, in the August of 1986: My neighbour casually asked me where had I been during summer — and, having received my honest “Well, in Chernobyl. Worked” — exclaimed (innocently) “But I hope you are not going to die!”, and then corrected himself: “Within next several years, I mean...”
       The situation has not changed with time. At least, not to the best: now similar judgement can be received by the liquidator not only in private but in public, through mass media. Example: The Pravda Ukrainy [Truth of Ukraine] newspaper of 26th April, 1996, on the page dedicated to the 10th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident, published article They were amongst the first by Nikolay Surgay, Member of Parliament of Ukraine, a former head of the joint team of the Ministry of Coal-Mining Industry of the USSR; he, in particular, wrote:
       I cannot help saying good words to the address of our warriors. One could and should do more for them in Chernobyl. It is not their guilt but their misfortune that many of them, through no fault of theirs, have not later become fathers, their wives — mothers, and their young dearly-loved — wives.

       This statement is quite remarkably typical, and at least in several senses. First, it is not true (the impact upon the reproductive function has been discussed in Ch. 3). Second, it is widely spread; e.g, the statement presented above is not an expression of a singular personal opinion: it did not meet objection from the newspaper editorial board (both from scientific and ethical considerations, for the general tone of the publication was quite respectful to the liquidators and to what they have done in Chernobyl); i.e., this statement was considered quite sensible.
       One more example: an opinion of a young Ukrainian woman with two university degrees: “I think that all liquidators are heavily, incurably ill, badly affected physically or mentally.”
       Unfortunately, sometimes the affected are victimised by (I want to emphasise — absolutely good-wishing) caregivers and relief-providers. It is not a particular Chernobyl phenomenon: it is reported to be the case, e.g., for a such group of the PTSD-affected as child abuse victims and their caregivers (Herman 1997). It is not a rare case, when in the course of debate against nuclear industry the anti-nuclear side concentrates data about negative aftermath of Chernobyl to a degree which makes coping with this aftermath apparently impossible. Such presentations can hardly stimulate survival of the Chernobyl-affected. Nor is their survival and recovery stimulated by the denial of any impact of Chernobyl upon people, persistently expressed by the pro-nuclear lobby. All such opinions and attitudes create a very unfavourable psychological environment around the affected groups and their members; this environment, its psychological pressure constitutes an additional threat for liquidators' health, poses a new challenge to be met by the liquidators.
       So, their information — or, more precisely, misinformation — environment definitely has a major harmful effect upon the health of the Chernobyl-affected, including the liquidators. In order to efficiently mitigate the Chernobyl Disaster, this circumstance of the Disaster should be changed radically.

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Studio ARWIS  Kharkov, 2001