Chronic radiation exposure in the Rivne-Polissia region of Ukraine: implications for birth defects

Am J Hum Biol. 2010 Sep-Oct;22(5):667-74. doi: 10.1002/ajhb.21063.


Objectives: The health effects of chronic low-dose radiation exposure remains a controversial question. Monitoring after the Chernobyl nuclear accident in Ukraine suggested that chronic low-dose radiation exposure was not linked to cancer mortality among the general population. However, elevated rates of birth defects in contaminated compared to uncontaminated regions suggest that exposure to radiation in utero might impact development and that chronic radiation exposure might represent an underestimated risk to human health.

Methods: We sought to determine current radiation exposure routes in Rivne-Polissia, a region of Ukraine contaminated by the Chernobyl accident. This represents a first step toward comprehensive studies of the effects of chronic radiation exposure on human health. We designed and administered a dietary and activity survey to 344 women in Polissia. We assessed types and sources of food consumed, types of outdoor activities, and alcohol intake.

Results: Alcohol intake was low and alone does not account for the observed high rates of birth defects. Wild foods, especially mushrooms and berries, and locally produced foods, especially milk related, were major radiation exposure routes. Additionally, women were exposed to radiation through inhalation while burning grasses and potato vines in fields, and wood for cooking and heating.

Conclusions: Twenty four years after the Chernobyl accident, women continue to be chronically exposed to low-dose radiation at levels exceeding current recommendations. This might contribute (especially synergistically with alcohol consumption and micronutrient deficiencies) to higher prevalence of birth defects in areas of Ukraine with high levels of radiation contamination compared to uncontaminated areas.

MeSH terms

  • Abnormalities, Radiation-Induced / epidemiology*
  • Abnormalities, Radiation-Induced / etiology*
  • Adult
  • Alcohol Drinking / adverse effects
  • Beverages / statistics & numerical data*
  • Cesium Radioisotopes / toxicity*
  • Chernobyl Nuclear Accident
  • Eating
  • Environmental Exposure / adverse effects*
  • Feeding Behavior
  • Female
  • Food / statistics & numerical data
  • Food Contamination, Radioactive / statistics & numerical data*
  • Fossil Fuels
  • Health Surveys
  • Humans
  • Inhalation Exposure
  • Occupations
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / epidemiology
  • Soil Pollutants, Radioactive / toxicity
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Ukraine / epidemiology
  • Water Pollutants, Radioactive / toxicity
  • Wood


  • Cesium Radioisotopes
  • Fossil Fuels
  • Soil Pollutants, Radioactive
  • Water Pollutants, Radioactive