Zones of uncertainty
For Jennifer Henning, president of Hope for Chernobyl's Child, there's no question that the ailments the children in the program suffer are the result of radiation exposure.
"I've seen the health effects firsthand," Henning said. "I know that it's there."
A physical education teacher in one of the schools that the organization works with told her that children there are getting weaker and weaker, Henning said.
That there are serious health problems among many youths in Belarus is not in dispute.
In 2008, nearly 22% of adolescents in Belarus had chronic diseases and disabilities, according to a 2010 UNICEF report. Risk factors, according to this report, included smoking and using alcohol and drugs.
Experts say that what organizations such as Hope for Chenobyl's Child are doing to help children with medical problems -- providing assistance in Belarus, and flying them to the United States for medical respite -- is great. Several other organizations also operate in regions devastated by the Chernobyl accident, such as Chernobyl Children International, the Chernobyl Children's Project and Chernobyl Children's Trust.
But rather than radiation-related illness, according to the 2005 Chernobyl Forum report, "The most pressing health concerns for the affected areas thus lie in poor diet and lifestyle factors such as alcohol and tobacco use, as well as poverty and limited access to health care."
The cause of Chernobyl evokes greater sympathy from the public than some other causes might, Mettler said.
"It's a very unique, scary accident," he said. "Everybody in the world knows about it. But, if you were to say, 'I've got children starving in the Sudan,' people would go, 'huh, whatever.' It wouldn't get their attention."
Henning points to a 2009 report, published by the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, rounding up evidence that radiation has had a lasting effect on the health of the population in contaminated areas. In Belarus, for instance, cancer morbidity increased 40% from 1990 to 2000, the report said, and girls age 10 to 14 born to irradiated parents had an increase in malignant and benign neoplasms.
Mettler counters this with the Chernobyl Forum report and a report from the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, which both had stamps of approval from representatives of the governments of Russia, Belarus and the Ukraine.
The Chernobyl Forum report said that while increases in congenital malformations in children have been reported in Belarus since 1986, the rates are not related to radiation, and "may be the result of increased registration" -- i.e. more people reporting their family's health problems.
"The majority of the 'contaminated' territories are now safe for settlement and economic activity," although certain restrictions need to remain in place on the use of land in some areas, the report said.
More than 5 million people in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine living in "contaminated" areas received whole-body radiation from the accident, but in doses not much higher than the natural radiation in the environment, the report said.
Does that mean that a healthy person could safely move to an area that has been cordoned off for decades and not have an increased risk of cancer? Davis isn't so sure -- but said he believes it hasn't been studied extensively enough.
"Common sense would dictate that it's probably not a great idea to live in a highly contaminated area and eat produce produced in the fields that are contaminated, or be in constant exposure mode," Davis said.
A mental toll
Both international reports highlighted the mental health toll as well; the Chernobyl Forum report called this the greatest public health problem that the accident caused. More than 330,000 people were relocated from the hardest-hit areas, which was a "deeply traumatic experience" for many.
"There is no question that people who either are exposed to radiation or think they might have been, suddenly are very nervous, and every time something happens, they go, 'Oh my God, what is this? Do I have a problem?' And they dash off to the hospital," Mettler said.