Nobody likes to be “had,” but that is precisely what has happened to the American public with the documentary Chernobyl Heart. Since winning the Academy Award for “Best Short Documentary” in February 2003, it has received international accolades, has been uncritically quoted in major newspapers, and is being recommended for America’s classrooms on the National Education Association’s website. HBO has run it continuously since September 2004. Yet while presented as a documentary on the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, it relies to a shocking extent on scientifically unsupportable claims and in some cases outright falsehoods.
Produced in 2002 by Maryann De Leo, it features the work of the Chernobyl Children’s Project, a New York-based charity providing aid to those in areas affected by the Chernobyl accident. It is a well-produced, heart-wrenching film with pictures so graphic it is hard to watch: a child with its brain growing outside its head, another with a kidney tumor so large the child cannot be moved, it goes on and on. De Leo later told an interviewer it was the hardest film she ever had to make. Yet without a scientific basis for linking these horrifying scenes to Chernobyl, the documentary harms the very people it is claiming to help.
According to findings of the Chernobyl Forum, released in April 2005, misinformation has been the most significant problem for people affected by the accident. A group of more than 100 scientists representing eight United Nations agencies and the governments of Belarus, Ukraine, and the Federation of Russia, the Forum found that most predictions about the accident have been exaggerated. While many had forecast tens and hundreds of thousands of fatalities, it reports a better estimate from among the population of emergency workers and those in the most contaminated areas is around 4,000. The most noticeable effect has been an increase in thyroid cancers among children, with survival rates fortunately greater than 98%. Otherwise, group concludes, there have been no detectable effects of the accident among the general population: no increase in infant mortality, no increase in birth defects, no increase in cancers, and no effects on immune system function that could be linked to radiation from Chernobyl.
The Chernobyl Forum’s greater concerns, however, relate to the impacts on the population caused by distorted reporting. Pointedly it concludes: “the mental health impact of Chernobyl is largest public health problem unleashed by the accident to date.” Because of the steady flow of misinformation, “misconceptions and myths about the threat of radiation persist, promoting a paralyzing fatalism among residents.” The result has been heightened anxiety, increased suicides, and an “exaggerated sense of the dangers to health of exposure to radiation,” all coupled with a tendency to associate every observed health effect with Chernobyl.
Chernobyl Heart only reinforces this false sense of despair. As it opens the moderator points toward the remains of the plant: “…that building,” she intones, “has caused the destruction of nine million lives, half of which are children…the children know themselves they have no hope.”
No hope? Even the title is bogus. The condition “Chernobyl Heart” is claimed by the film to be a defect in the heart caused by radiation from the accident, yet there is no reference to a condition known as “Chernobyl Heart” in any major study of the consequences of Chernobyl. When I posed a question about this to Dr. Fred Mettler, who chaired the Chernobyl Forum’s Expert Group on Health, he told me: “The issue of cardiac defects does not appear as a radiation related effect in either human or animal data I am aware of over the last century.” He added, “none of the three governments presented any such data as being Chernobyl related.” As he observed, they are simply taking spontaneous birth defects and improperly attributing them to Chernobyl.
But that is only the beginning. One graphic claims: “infant mortality is 300% higher in Belarus than the rest of Europe.” True, but it was true before the accident as well. More importantly, rates have been declining since the accident in both contaminated and non-contaminated areas. The problem here is not Chernobyl but differences in health care, diet and lifestyles. Another states: “birth defects have increased 250% since the Chernobyl accident.” This is flatly contradicted by the Chernobyl Forum’s Expert Group on Health which concurred with earlier reports that “so far, no increase in birth defects, congenital malformations, stillbirths, or premature births could be linked to radiation exposures caused by (Chernobyl).” As with heart defects, the repeated pictures of horribly deformed children involve conditions which would have occurred with or without the accident.
Not satisfied with exaggerating health effects, the documentary seeks to add impact by misrepresenting the accident itself. We are told, for example, that only 3 percent of the “full potential” was released during the accident. This “very scary thought” is said to mean that 97 percent of the “full potential” remains and “the next Chernobyl will be Chernobyl itself.” While it is true that only about 3.5 percent of the fuel materials were released, these were not the main sources of radioactivity inside the reactor. Considering actual releases and radioactive decay since the accident, a closer estimate is that 1-5 percent of the original radioactivity remains. And those materials are the most stable, which is why two explosions and a fire lasting ten days left them behind.
Perhaps the most dramatic graphic states: “The people of Chernobyl were exposed to 90 times greater radiation than that from the explosion of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima.” This somewhat startling claim is also false. In fact, there were some 20,000 human casualties from radiation exposures at Hiroshima and Nagasaki within the first two to four months due to radiation exposures, compared with 28 during a similar period at Chernobyl. The claim arises from a comparison of radioactive fallout between the two events, but fallout was not the primary source of radiation exposure at Hiroshima. The primary source was the direct burst of gamma and neutron radiation from fissioning within the bomb itself. It is both callous and irresponsible to even suggest the two events are comparable.
Chernobyl was a terrible accident, but no one is served by misrepresenting its consequences. Documentaries distorting the truth pose a more serious problem because they have a stamp of authority and are trusted. Here that trust was betrayed, not just by the Chernobyl Children’s Project releasing a documentary with mangled facts, but also by Hollywood granting it an Academy Award with no apparent effort to check them. The Chernobyl Children’s Project should be given credit for its charitable work, but its documentary should be criticized rather than applauded. Certainly HBO should pull it from the air, and the National Education Association should discourage its use as an educational aid for the children of America.