Fear and hype surround radiation, which has become something of a bogeyman in part because of popular culture. A radioactive spider bit Peter Parker and turned him into Spiderman. Bruce Banner absorbed radiation in a bomb explosion and became The Incredible Hulk. Radiation from nuclear detonations morphed a small lizard into Godzilla.
“It gives you subliminal messages about the capacity of radiation to do harm,” Professor Bushberg says in a telephone interview.
To be sure, the 1986 nuclear meltdown north of Ukraine’s capital was tragic. Dozens of first-responders died within months from what doctors said was a combination of high radiation, trauma, and burns. It also led to cancer in hundreds of children, says Bushberg, who did environmental studies around Chernobyl in the late 1980s.
But the extent of devastation from Chernobyl is hotly debated.
“After more than 20 years of extensive study, there is no consistent evidence of increased birth defects, leukemia, or most other radiation-related diseases,” journalist Peter Hessler wrote in a 2010 article for The New Yorker. He said the only public epidemic consists of high rates of cancer in children, who tend to be more sensitive to radiation.
Even those incidences of cancer could have been prevented, scientists say, if the Soviet government had warned locals against feeding contaminated milk to their children.