Nearly two decades after the Chernobyl accident, residents of affected areas still lack the information they need to lead healthy, productive lives, according to a range of opinion polls and sociological studies conducted in recent years. Although accurate information is accessible and governments have made many attempts at dissemination, misconceptions and myths about the threat of radiation persist, promoting a paralysing fatalism among residents. This fatalism yields both excessively cautious behaviour (constant anxiety about health) and reckless conduct (consumption of mushrooms, berries and game from areas of high contamination).
These findings were most recently confirmed by three country-specific reports prepared as part of the International Chernobyl Research and Information Network (ICRIN), a UN initiative to provide accurate and credible information to populations affected by the Chernobyl disaster. Surveys and focus group meetings involving thousands of people in each of the three countries in 2003–2 004 showed that, despite concerted efforts by governments, scientists, international organizations, and the mass media, people living in the areas affected by the Chernobyl accident express deep confusion and uncertainty about the impact of radiation on their health and surroundings. Awareness is low of what practical steps to take to lead a healthy life in the region.
Overcoming mistrust of information provided on Chernobyl remains a major challenge, owing to the early secrecy with which Soviet authorities treated the accident, the use of conflicting data by different institutions, the unresolved controversies surrounding the impact of low-dose radiation on health, and the often complex scientific language in which information is presented.
Surveys showed that Chernobyl-area residents in all three countries are preoccupied with their own health and that of their children, but concern about low living standards is also extremely pronounced. Indeed, socio-economic concerns were viewed as more important than the level of radiation. Specifically, low household incomes and high unemployment cause uncertainty, see Fig. 10.
FIG. 10. What worries you most? Data from 2003 Russian survey, 748 respondents, multiple responses allowed.
The ICRIN country studies confirm that Chernobyl-affected populations need unambiguous and comprehensible answers to a range of questions, as well as fresh policies that would focus on promoting the region’s economic development. To get the message across, new ways of information delivery and education need to be found. The Chernobyl Forum findings should provide authoritative source material for creative dissemination to the affected populations, helping them both to lead healthier lives and overcome a paralyzing legacy of worry and fear.