Chernobyl to Leningrad via Paris

John Wells

The BNL Magazine

CEGB, Berkeley Nuclear Laboratories, Gloucestershire, No4, October 1988.

View of the Aurora from the Leningrad Hotel, Leningrad (St Petersberg). 1987

Little did I think that I would be signing Marie Curie's visitors book when I was invited to attend an IAEA Advisory Group Meeting in Paris last September*. This meeting on the medical handling of skin lesions following high level accidental irradiation was held at the Institute Curie and the UK, USSR, USA and France were each represented by two official delegates.

Opening presentations by Dr Barabanova (clinician) and Professor Osanov (physicist) described the nature of the radiation exposures at Chernobyl, the subsequent clinical responses and the treatment of some representative cases.

All of the 115 patients who were admitted to Moscow hospital No6 with acute radiation sickness showed some form of radiation damage to the skin, primarily on exposed sites like the face. Significant beta burns were observed on 48 individuals (>1% of the body surface) and only two patients had additional thermal burns. Of the 27 patients who died of radiation injuries,19 had skin damage over more than 50% of their body surface.

Our discussions produced other interesting information. For example, water used for fighting fires readily transports active material into or through permeable clothing, thus allowing beta irradiation of the skin. Also, sitting down on contaminated areas can result in beta irradiation of the nether regions. These high doses not only result in sterilisation but can also reduce testosterone production in men, with the consequent development of breasts. Fortunately, administration of the appropriate hormone can readily reverse this phenomenon.

The most important observation in patients was that the skin response came in two distinct waves. The first wave was often seen to heal (along with bone marrow recovery) only to give way, more than two months after exposure, to a second painful, deep-seated and sometimes more extensive response. Work carried out in the CEGB collaborative radiobiology programme** had predicted such effects for high energy beta irradiation of the skin.

Dr John Hopewell (Cancer Research Campaign) and I gave the only other formal presentations where we described the relevance of our collaborative programme to the Chernobyl accident and to the follow-up treatment of individuals.

Our host's great hospitality could be described as scintillating since one of our excursions included a visit to Marie Curie's laboratory where her scientific notes are on paper that is still radioactive with alpha-emitting contamination. It was there that some of us were invited to sign Marie Curie's visitors book.

This Paris meeting led to another Advisory Group Meeting one month later on advances in biological dosimetry, but gone was the autumn sun in exchange for the short days of the impending Leningrad winter. The meeting was excellent and allowed considerable time for discussion with biologists and clinicians from the Chernobyl teams. There was considerable interest in BNL's work in this area and a manual on biological dosimetry techniques (IAEA/WHO) will result from this meeting.

The people of Leningrad seemed particularly hardy. My lasting memories will include the people queueing at ice cream stands in sub-zero temperatures and others swimming between ice-floes in the night!



John Wells (left) with Dr Riaboukhine in front of St Isaac's Cathedral.

Photos were not in the original article.


To John's knowledge, the Paris meeting was never openly published by the IAEA.

John Hopewell wrote up a personal, unpublished account of the meeting.

See also Wikipedia entries (1) (2) and especially (3).


* 28 September - 2 October 1987

** Wells, J. and Charles, M.W. The development of criteria for limiting the non-uniform irradiation of skin: The rationale for a study of non-stochastic effects. CEGB Report RD/B/N4565, 1979.

The project was originally discussed (around the initial draft of the above report) by John Hopewell, George Wiernik and John at the Churchill Hospital, Oxford, 3 May 1978. John received a letter dated 18 May 1978 from George Wiernik which outlined the agreed research programme and costings.

A similar letter was received by John, from John Hopewell, dated 1 July 1980, agreeing to extend the studies to include work on biological dosimetry based on:

Wells, J. and Charles, M.W. Proposed experiments for assessing the potential use of skin as an indicator of sub-erythemal radiation exposure. CEGB Report RD/B/N4629, 1979.

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