Radiation Too Easily Dismissed
On Dec. 19, the state Department of Health announced that it has no explanation for most of the childhood cancer outbreak in Toms River. Its study included a review of radioactive emissions from the Oyster Creek nuclear power plant in Lacey, finding exposures “far below the limit of detection” and the chance that a local resident would develop cancer in a lifetime to be “about one in a billion.”
About one in a billion? Can anyone believe that the risk of a poison like radiation is that small?
Health officials need to take a more probing look at what Oyster Creek has done to the local environment. Since it opened in 1969, it has released the largest amount of airborne radioactivity of the 103 reactors operating in the United States.
Health officials should recognize the well-established principle that even low levels of radiation exposure can cause cancer. The first such study was done in 1958, when British physician Alice Stewart showed that just a single pelvic X-ray of a pregnant mother doubled the chance that the child would die of cancer before age 10.
Health officials should have recognized that there are nearly two dozen articles in medical journals showing childhood cancer rates near nuclear plants are high.
Most importantly, health officials should understand the best way to study radiation’s health effects is measuring how much is actually in the human body. The Radiation and Public Health Project research group is conducting the “Tooth Fairy Project” in which citizens donate baby teeth. The radiation project measures the level of radioactive strontium-90, a carcinogen created only in atomic bomb explosions and nuclear reactors. The health department did no such measurement, relying only on emissions data.
A $75,000 appropriation for collecting and testing teeth introduced by Se. Leonard T. Connors Jr., R-Ocean, was passed by the state Legislature in 2000, only to be vetoed by then-Gov. Christine Todd Whitman. But after actor Alec Baldwin made four presentations in Toms River in 1999 and 2000, the radiation project has collected over 500 teeth from New Jersey, over half of which are from Ocean County. The group released preliminary findings in April, showing that current strontium-90 levels are the same as in the 19750s, and that trends in these levels and childhood cancer rates in Ocean County are roughly the same.
When the state health department’s James Blumenstock was asked why the Tooth Fairy Project results weren’t considered in the current report, he replied that the department would have done so if the study “had been presented to them.”
If the study had been presented to them? Multiple hearings have been attended by hundreds of local citizens, and coverage of the study has been extensive.
Five years and $10 million taxpayer dollars later, local residents have virtually no answers to the childhood cancer crisis. But while the health department’s work may be largely over, the Tooth Fairy Project will continue, because citizens want answers.
Already, the radiation project has published articles in three medical journals describing protocols on how the study is conducted, along with the preliminary results. More articles will be forthcoming as additional teeth are analyzed.
The group recently received unused 85,000 St. Louis baby teeth left over from a 1960s collection of 300,000 donated to study strontium-90 buildup from atomic bomb tests in Nevada. (The original study, funded by the U.S. Public Health Service, influenced President John F. Kennedy to sign the treaty banning aboveground tests.) The radiation project will conduct a follow-up health study to examine whether those most heavily exposed are more likely to have died or developed cancer and other diseases by the time they reach their 40s.
People are concerned about nuclear reactors, and the concerns lie well beyond childhood cancer. Reactors are aging (Oyster Creek is the oldest in the nation), making them more likely to experience mechanical breakdowns. Highly radioactive waste is piling up at the plants. Finally, the possibility of terrorists smashing a plane into a reactor, releasing large amounts of radiation in a Chernobyl0-like scenario, has been widely discussed since Sept. 11.
People are also concerned about cancer, which will strike 40 percent of Americans sometime in their life. Even the recent efforts minimize the issue. Childhood cancer is high not just in Toms River; cancer deaths in children under 10 in Ocean and Monmouth counties were 74 percent higher than the U.S. rate in the late 1990s. About 3,000 residents in these two counties died of the disease each year in the past decade, 10 percent above the national average.
Local residents should be asking themselves if the health department probe into the child cancer problem has changed anything. The Ciba Geigy plant that may have caused leukemia in young girls has been closed since 1996, before the investigation began. But Oyster Creek continues to operate, while cancer rates remain high. It is up to local residents to demand better answers from their public officials, so that future generations are better protected and will suffer less.
For more information, the public is invited to a meeting at 7 p.m. Feb. 13 at the Ocean County College Student Center in Dover Township.
Joseph J. Mangano MPH MBA is National Coordinator of the Radiation and Public Health Project, a research group based in New York. Edith Gbur is director of Jersey Shore Nuclear Watch, Toms River.