Baby Steps And Baby Teeth:
Governor Rell has recently asked state health officials to investigate the best ways to study cancer risk for people living near the Millstone nuclear plant. This request, while admirable, has been a long time coming; and just like Rome wasn't built in a day, it will take a long-term commitment, done step by step, to obtain meaningful answers.
Millstone, situated in Waterford in New London County, has been in operation since 1970. It has a checkered operating record; the plant released the third greatest amount of airborne radioactive particles of any U.S. plant, trailing only Dresden in Illinois and Oyster Creek in New Jersey, according to federal records. In early 1996, a Time magazine cover story based on reports from employees exposed a number of safety flaws at the plant. Management and safety procedures underwent a massive overhaul, to the tune of $1 billion, and federal regulators assessed a record fine of $2 million. Millstone's oldest reactor was shut down permanently, while its other two reactors were idled for three years.
Investigations of local cancer rates since the plant began operating have been virtually non-existent. In 1990, the National Cancer Institute looked at cancer incidence in New London County before and after Millstone began operating. Cancer incidence rates rose, faster than in other counties in the state, for children under age 20 - especially for leukemia, which is closely linked to radiation exposure. For adults, county cancer rates rose, most sharply for thyroid cancer, bone cancer, and leukemia, all associated with radiation exposure. But this initial study was never followed up by federal or state officials.
The issue of childhood cancer is an especially troubling one. Unlike adults, children do not develop cancer from unhealthy habits such as cigarette smoking. Childhood cancer rates are rising across the U.S.; in Connecticut, cancer in children under age five has jumped 72% since the late 1960s, and experts have no explanation for this. Even though many child cancer victims now survive due to better treatments, each case is an agony for the child and their friends and family. But before childhood cancer can be prevented, causes of the disease, including radiation exposure, must be understood.
Like any nuclear plant, Millstone emits a cocktail of over 100 radioactive chemicals found only in nuclear weapons and reactors, into the air and water. Each of these chemicals, which enter the body through breathing and the food chain, has a specific biochemical action. Strontium-90 attaches to teeth and bone, Iodine-131 seeks out the thyroid gland, and Cesium-137 disperses throughout the soft tissues. All pose a risk of cancer, especially to the susceptible infant and child.
The specific question of how much Millstone radioactivity has entered people's bodies, and what damage it has caused, has never been seriously considered - until recently. Since 1998, the New York-based Radiation and Public Health Project (RPHP) research group has conducted the Tooth Fairy Project - the only study to ever examine in-body radiation levels near U.S. nuclear plants. Using sophisticated equipment and personnel, scientists in the group have methodically measured the Strontium-90 level (the chemical decays slowly and remains detectable for many years) in each of 5,000 baby teeth. Results, which have been published in five medical journal articles, show Sr-90 levels are highest in teeth from children living closest to nuclear plants, and that these levels have risen substantially since the late 1980s. More importantly, Sr-90 is higher in teeth of children with cancer; although more teeth are needed to make this preliminary finding more significant.
Just over a year ago, RPHP approached Governor Rell, asking that she seek a modest $25,000 appropriation to support the cost of collecting and testing baby teeth from 150 Connecticut children with and without cancer. At first she agreed, and had the money moved to the Department of Public Health. But recently Health Commissioner J. Robert Galvin refused to sign a contract with RPHP and denied the funds, and Governor Rell made her call to open up the issue for more consideration.
Thirty-six years is a long time for a nuclear plant to operate, with no studies of health risk to local residents. A truly thorough investigation of health risks may take years and cost millions of dollars. The precarious condition of the state budget makes this noble goal not practical. Instead, Governor Rell should make the most of scarce resources, and address the matter thoroughly, but in increments. As a start, she should authorize the $25,000 for the Tooth Fairy Project to commence, as the legislatures of New Jersey and Westchester County NY have done in recent years. For a modest expense, the state will make a good first step in the attempt to understand this important public health issue.
Joseph Mangano MPH MBA is National Coordinator of the Radiation and Public Health Project, and author of 22 medical journal articles on health risks of nuclear weapons and reactors.