Texas Tech Professors Chronicle Decade of Chernobyl Studies in American Scientist Journal

After 12 years of studying the Chernobyl disaster and the repercussions radioactive fallout has had in the area, two Texas Tech researchers say populations of plants and animals in the area are better off than in non-affected areas.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
DATE: Oct. 30, 2006
CONTACT: John Davis, john.w.davis@ttu.edu
(806) 742-2136

LUBBOCK – After 12 years of studying the Chernobyl disaster and the repercussions radioactive fallout has had in the area, two Texas Tech researchers say populations of plants and animals in the area are better off than in non-affected areas.

The story, Growing Up with Chernobyl, was published in the October issue of American Scientist. It chronicles how the two scientists have learned that the answers to low-dose radiation exposure don’t come easily. Ronald Chesser, director for the Center for Environmental Radiation Studies, and Robert Baker, Horn professor of biological sciences, co-wrote the piece.

Though many studies claim radiation is responsible for genetic differentiation in wildlife populations and blame it for causing cancers in people, Chesser said many of those genetic differences could be a result of natural genetic variations and not mutations caused from radiation exposure.

“Chernobyl is a very emotional subject,” Chesser said. “People tend to choose sides, and I’m afraid we’re seeing a lot of that in the literature. The real work is trying to attach cause and effect. That’s a difficult piece of work for one to do. Most of these studies have put very little effort into trying to understand cause and effect.”

During the past 12 years, Chesser said it’s been difficult to grasp exactly how low-dose radiation exposure can affect plants and animal life. While scientists know that too much radiation can and will kill a living being, the exposure to low-dose radiation isn’t fully understood.

“We only know what happens when plants and animals are exposed to high doses of radiation,” he said. “At low doses, it seems to have very little effect. It takes very detailed, meticulous studies to find these answers. We haven’t had the money to do a study like that.”

Even Baker and Chesser admit they’ve had to rethink the way they conduct their experiments.

In the beginning of their studies, they concluded that certain rodents suffered significant genetic rearrangements, but more recent assessments suggest that these animals have not experienced mutations that can be attributed to the nuclear accident.

At the end, Chesser and Baker list suggestions for improving Chernobyl studies, such as having researchers archive tissues for others to replicate testing, reporting both positive and negative results from their experiments and using double-blind experimental standards to combat personal biases.

“Sometimes, you see what you want to see,” he said. “But in science, our own biases aren’t supposed to influence what we’re seeing.”

For a copy of the story in PDF format, please contact John Davis at (806) 742-2136 or e-mail john.w.davis@ttu.edu.

-30-

CONTACT: Ronald Chesser, director for the Center for Environmental Radiation Studies, Texas Tech University, (806) 742-1737, or ron.chesser@ttu.edu.