A top US medical doctor who treated radiation victims in Chernobyl has criticized HBO’s depiction of the accident and radiation’s health effects as inaccurate and “dangerous.”
“Another error [in HBO’s “Chernobyl”] was to portray the victims as being dangerously radioactive,” UCLA’s Robert Gale wrote in “The Cancer Letter,” a subscription-based newsletter.
Gale has been a world-renowned expert on bone marrow transplantation, which is used to treat radiation victims, since before the Chernobyl accident. After the accident, Gale reached out to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who asked Gale to come “immediately.”
“I spent the next two years mostly in the Soviet Union working with my colleagues at the Institute for Biophysics and Clinical Hospital 6 dealing with a bit more than 200 persons with acute radiation exposures,” Gale writes.
“In the subsequent 30 years, I have been involved in several studies of the long-term medical consequences of the accident—initially in the ex-Soviet Union and later in the Russian Federation, Ukraine and Belorussia.”
Gale, who worked for UCLA at the time of the accident, says that the firefighters who suffered from Acute Radiation Syndrome were not contagious, as they are portrayed as by HBO’s “Chernobyl.”
“Most radiation contamination was superficial and relatively easily managed by routine procedures. This is entirely different than the  Goiania [Brazil] accident, where the victims ate 137-cesium [from an old teletherapy machine] and we had to isolate them from most medical personnel.”
Gale criticizes the portrayal in “Chernobyl” of a baby’s death supposedly from “absorbing” deadly amounts of radiation from her dying father, a firefighter who helped put out the blaze.
“The radiation would have killed the mother,” says HBO’s fictional scientist-hero played by Emily Watson, “but the baby absorbed it instead.”
“Chernobyl” suggests strongly that the event actually occurred, I noted in my last column, to which a number of readers emailed or tweeted to claim that the event did, in fact, occur. How did they know? Why, it was described in a book,Voices From Chernobyl.
“She looked healthy,” says a character from the book. “But she had cirrhosis of the liver. Her liver had twenty-eight roentgen. Congenital heart disease. Four hours later they told me she was dead.”
For many readers those few sentences were apparently proof that a) a baby died, b) an autopsy was conducted, c) the autopsy found elevated radiation levels in the liver and heart disease, d) the radiation was traced to Chernobyl, and e) the results of the autopsy were withheld from scientific authorities but shared with the mother.
But there is no record that the event occurred, and Gale says it could not have happened.
“Lastly, there is the dangerous representation that, because one of the victims was radioactive, his pregnant wife endangered her unborn child by entering his hospital room,” writes Gale.
“First, as discussed, none of the victims were radioactive; their exposures were almost exclusively external, not internal,” writes Gale. “More importantly, risk to a fetus from an exposure like this is infinitesimally small.”
Even high levels of radiation result in few birth defects, Gale notes. “For example, amongst the several hundred pregnant women exposed to high-dose radiation from the A-bombs, there were only 29 children with attributable developmental defects. All were exposed in the second trimester, when cells are migrating to the brain from the neural crest.”
In HBO’s “Chernobyl,” the radiation victims look terrifying — more like monsters, or zombies, than human. Gale writes, “the effects are portrayed as something horrendous, unimaginable. This is inaccurate.
“In doing haematopoietic cell transplant, we commonly expose people to much higher radiation doses than received by any of the Chernobyl victims. So do radiation therapists. We know what the toxicities are and we are reasonably effective in mitigating them.”
HBO’s “Chernobyl” misrepresents radiation exposure as the main or only factor behind the deaths of 29 firefighters. In reality, writes Gale, there were “synchronous injuries” that “make people more susceptible to radiation damage [and] can kill people even if you successfully reverse the radiation-induced damage.”
Fear-mongering, Gale noted, resulted in many women unnecessarily terminating their pregnancies.
“We estimate incorrect advice from physicians regarding the relationship between maternal radiation exposure from Chernobyl and birth defects,” writes Gale, “resulted in more than one million unnecessary abortions in the Soviet Union and Europe. Ignorance is dangerous.”
The very same doctors whose advice encouraged one million women to seek abortions are also behind the claims by groups ranging from Greenpeace to Helen Caldicott to MIT historian Kate Brown that many more people died from Chernobyl radiation than experts, the World Health Organization and the United Nations, found.
Gale knew that fear and panic would create more harm than radiation and so “I later brought my family to Kiev to reassure people there was no need to evacuate.”
Most radiation victims survived, Gale notes. “Our scorecard treating the 204 victims was reasonably good. Sadly, 29 died but we could rescue 175 (86 percent). If we include the two immediate deaths at the Chernobyl NPF, there were 31 deaths.”
Gale used a novel treatment method, which he tested on himself. “One interesting intervention, suggested by Prof. David Golde (UCLA) was use of a molecularly cloned haematopoietic growth factor,” writes Gale.
“Sargramostim had been tested in dogs and monkeys to increase granulocytes, but had not been given to humans. We brought it into the Soviet Union from Switzerland—hidden in a passenger’s checked luggage with the permission of a Politburo Chernobyl commission,” Gale writes.
“The problem was the Soviets didn’t want the Chernobyl victims to be the first humans to receive a new therapy. The solution was for Vorobiev and I to inject one another with sargramostim,” writes Gale.
“We lived and so, we got permission to proceed.”
“I’m amazed the producers didn’t get technical advice from a health physicist or radiobiologist rather than basing much of their screenplay on a novel (Voices of Chernobyl),” write Gale.
In his article, Gale takes issue with the portrayal of Soviet authorities as reluctant to seek outside help.
“I was immediately invited to come to Moscow and shortly thereafter to bring three colleagues,” Gale writes. “In my experience dealing with nuclear accidents, this is rather unusual and indicates a desire to do everything possible to help the victims—throwing politics to the wind. And whilst in Moscow, we were free to expropriate supplies and equipment from many Russian medical centers.”
“Even more extraordinary, when I requested the Soviets allow me to bring in an Israeli scientist to help (there were no diplomatic relations with Israel at the time), they agreed, albeit with some arm-twisting.”
Gale says the accident was impossible to cover-up, as portrayed by HBO. ”Anyone looking at the destroyed reactor building, mass of firefighting equipment, and personnel streaming into the reactor complex—the smoke from the fire clearly visible from Pripyat about 4 km away etc.—I cannot imagine anyone would try to cover this up. It would be like standing in lower Manhattan after destruction of the Twin Towers and pretending there was no problem.”
“All governments try to contain bad news of this type,” notes Gale. “I see rather little difference between the initial U.S. government reaction to the Three Mile Island (TMI) accident, the initial Japan government reaction to the Fukushima-Daiichi accident, and the Soviet response to Chernobyl.”
“Although the 31 immediate Chernobyl-related deaths are sad,” he concludes, “the number of fatalities is remarkably small compared with many energy-related accidents, such as the Benxihu coal mine disaster in China 1942, which killed about 1500 miners, and the 1975 Banqiao dam accident, also in China, which killed about 250,000 people.”
“About 15,000 people reportedly die mining coal every year, although the true number may be much higher, and this figure does not consider morbidity from occupational hazards such as coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (black lung disease).
“About 1 million Egyptians are estimated to have become blind from trachoma because of construction of the Aswan High Dam. For reference, about 400 Americans are estimated to die on the highway over Memorial Day weekend.”