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CHERNOBYL'S LASTING EFFECTS

The 1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl had a long-lasting effect on wildlife, a new study suggests.

In the latest issue of the journal Nature, scientists from Uppsala, Sweden, and Paris report that barn swallows near Chernobyl are passing on genetic mutations to new generations. Other studies have suggested that the same is true for people and voles, but researchers don't know how the radiation has affected those species' survival.

The new study suggests that genetic mutations may be hurting the barn swallow populations. In particular, the researchers found that swallows captured after 1986 were much more likely to be partially albino. The birds had patches of feathers that were white instead of the usual rust or blue. Scientists think abnormal coloring makes the birds more susceptible as prey and less successful at mating.

Before 1986, no barn swallows were found to have albino patches. But in 1991, the number rose to 15 percent in Chernobyl. In 1996, 13 percent had albino patches. In a 1996 survey of two areas not affected by the radiation -- Kanev, Ukraine, and Milan, Italy -- only one percent of barn swallows had albino patches. The overall number of barn swallows in Chernobyl declined over that period.

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