Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How does radiation exposure affect unborn babies?

Are there examples of fetal radiation damage occurring in history?

The two most frequently cited nuclear contamination events are the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Chernobyl meltdown. There's also the recent disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan, although impacts from this meltdown may not be understood for a long while. So let's look back at history.

In 1945, the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in hopes of ending World War II. The plan worked, although many of the health impacts came as an unfortunate lesson that hindsight is 20/20. Since then, researchers have tracked the survivors and discovered that babies exposed to the bomb's radiation while still in utero were found to have lower IQs, higher rates of mental disability, and impaired physical growth and development. [source: Radiation Effects Research Foundation].

Another infamous example is that of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in the Ukraine. In 1986, the plant's reactor No. 4 exploded, disseminating radiation over Belarus, Russia and areas in northern Europe. Thirty-one people died in the first few weeks following the disaster from radiation sickness [sources: Mayo Clinic; World Nuclear Association]. Research has also shown that children from the areas surrounding Chernobyl have an unusually high rate of thyroid cancer, stunted growth, unhealthy teeth and gums, immune system disorders and a much higher rate of thyroid cancer [source: Chernobyl Children's Project].

The thyroid is the only organ in the human body that uses iodine, so if we take in radioactive iodine, the body shuttles it straight to the thyroid where cellular mutations can then occur, possibly causing cancer [source: Classic]. After the Chernobyl explosion, radioactive iodine blanketed the cow fields and, through digestion, it became incorporated into cows' milk and was passed on to the children who drank it [source: World Health Organization]. The effects of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Chernobyl are still being felt today.

Ask your physician if you have a specific concern about radiation exposure and your unborn baby. For more information on the topic, visit the links and articles on the next page.

More to Explore