The animals living in the Chernobyl exclusion zone are suffering from cataracts, an international study found. This may be caused by particles, mostly Cesium-137, which emits low but persistent radiation.
The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, was led by Philipp Lehmann and Tapio Mappes, both researchers from the University of Jyväskylä, Finland. The researchers found that bank voles, which live in areas with high radiation levels, were more prone to developing cataracts than the ones that live on areas with natural radiation levels.
Scientists have known that chronic exposure to radiation can decrease animal population, like what happened after the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents. The damages from high radiation exposure have also been studied but scientists did not know of the consequences of chronic exposure to low radiation to wild animals until now.
Cataract is the clouding of the eye’s natural lens, and the frequency increased with age in the voles. The research team also discovered that elevated radiation intensified the effects of aging on these voles. However, the effect was only significant in the female voles.
The researchers are still uncertain of the exact reasons for the gender differences. Nevertheless, they speculate that the increased risk of the condition is linked with reproduction of offspring. They suggest that further studies are needed to understand if the low reproduction was caused by cataracts or the radiation.
The team notes that people who work in environments that expose them to radiation, such as radiology nurses, power plant workers, have an increased risk of developing cataract. There are indications of high radiosensitivity but still, further studies are needed.
The study supports evidences of the impact of chronic exposure to low radiation on animals and the environment. The researchers assert that studying these effects can help people to prepare for possible nuclear accidents and their consequences, helping nations to prevent long-term negative effects of radiation exposure.