Official cancer statistics for Putnam County residents aren't good. From the mid 1990s to the mid 2000s, the county's incidence rate for all cancers jumped 17% for males and 33% for females, while the state and national rates didn't change.
Putnam now has the 6th highest cancer rate of the 62 counties in New York State, and over 500 new cases are diagnosed each year among local residents. Putnam also has the dubious distinction of having the highest rates of breast and thyroid cancer of any New York county.
Why are cancer rates so high? The list of possible causes is a very long one that includes genetic, lifestyle, environmental, and other factors. One of these potential causes is the Indian Point nuclear power plant.
Nearly all of the 100,000 persons living in Putnam County reside within 25 miles of Indian Point. During the warmer months, when prevailing winds are from the southwest, Putnam is directly downwind of the plant.
Indian Point's two reactors routinely release some of the radioactive (and cancer-causing) chemicals they generate into local air and water. There are over 100 such chemicals, including Strontium-90, Iodine-131, and Cesium-137 - the same as in fallout after atomic bomb tests years ago. They enter human bodies through breathing and the food chain. Historically, Indian Point has released the 5th most radioactivity of any U.S. nuclear plant.
Putnam's high rate of thyroid cancer makes it more likely that Indian Point has contributed to local cancer risk. The only known cause of the disease is exposure to radioactive iodine, found only in atomic bomb explosions and nuclear reactor releases. Scientists have found high thyroid cancer rates in areas near the Hiroshima/Nagasaki bombs, Chernobyl accident, and Nevada atomic bomb tests. The fact that Putnam County's thyroid cancer rate is the highest in New York and one of the highest in the U.S. should be taken seriously.
Federal regulators are considering a proposal to extend the licenses of the two Indian Point reactors for 20 years. This decision should be based not just on energy needs and costs, but on public health interests. Because local cancer rates are so high, sound public policy should focus on safe sources of electricity, such as wind and solar, and not more nuclear power.
Joseph J. Mangano MPH MBA is Executive Director of the Radiation and Public Health Project, a research and education group based in New York.