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Study finds increased risk of leukemia near US plant

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(December 21, 1990) A three-year study by the US state of Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) has found that adults living and working within 10 miles of Boston Edison's Pilgrim reactor had a four times greater risk of contracting leukemia from 1978-1983 than those living elsewhere.

(344.3440) WISE Amsterdam - The study also found that the risk of leukemia increased the closer one lived and worked to the plant and that "a dose-response relationship was observed in that the relative risk of leukemia increased as the potential for exposure to plant emissions also increased." The study does not argue that it can prove a cause and effect between potential radiation exposures and the increased risk of leukemia, but instead says it found a strong association between the two, and that it can find no other explanation.

According to the study, the risk of leukemia from 1984-1986 (the last year for which data was obtained), was normal. The DPH concluded that this was probably due to the fact that Pilgrim had higher-than-average radiation releases during the 1970s, but lower releases since 1980. In the 1970s, Pilgrim exceeded the emissions limits of 25 millirems/year set by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), although it stayed within Nuclear Regulatory (NRC) limits of 500 millirems/year. (According to the NRC, 500 millirems/year is roughly equivalent to a one in 57 lifetime risk of fatal cancer.)

The study directly contradicts the recent National Cancer Institute (NCI) study of cancer mortality around nuclear sites, which found no evidence of increased fatal cancers near nuclear plants (see WISE News Communique 340.3399). But the Massachusetts DPH argues that its study was much more thorough. For example, DPH studied cancer incidence rather than only mortality. Also, the DPH examined 22 towns near the plant instead of relying only on countywide data. In addition, the DPH conducted detailed interviews of cases and controls in order to ensure that other factors, such as smoking, occupational hazards, proximity to hazardous waste sites, etc. were not the causes of the elevated risk.


IDAHO STUDY: "There have been an awful lot of deaths in Clark County," north of the US government's Idaho National Engineering Laboratory (INEL), says Verla Webster. She herself developed cancer after her husband died of the disease 10 years ago. Now another state-sponsored study, this one done in Idaho, reveals that from 1978 to 1987, 39 cancer cases were reported in the county. Clark County has a population of only 800 and should have had not more than 25 cases. A recent INEL Historical Dose Assessment Study done by the US Department of Energy has been heavily criticized for neglecting information on deliberate releases, such as one called LaLa Run, during which 2800 curies of iodine-131 were deliberately released.
The Nuclear Monitor (US), 3 Dec. 1990

Boston Edison immediately condemned the study's conclusions, but was not able to find fault with its methodology. A spokesperson could only argue that the study must be wrong because the NCI study did not find any increased risk. She also insisted that "there is still not enough radiation emitted" from Pilgrim over the years "to cause even a single cancer." It is generally accepted that any amount of radiation exposure can cause cancer, and that cancer risks increase with exposure and length of time exposed.

According to the Washington-based Nuclear Information and Resource Service, the Massachusetts government, at least, is apparently taking the DPH study seriously. As a result, the DPH will continue to study cancers in the area. It will also set up radiation monitors around Pilgrim to ensure that reliable and up-to-date emissions information is available, conduct a study of child-hood leukemia around the plant, and will develop an air emissions standard more strict than US federal levels. Massachusetts plans seek a 10 millirems/year exposure standard. Meanwhile, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis has sent a copy of the study to the NRC, with a letter urging tougher emissions standards nationwide. The NRC, however, is expected to soon release new radiation standards that will allow emissions of 100 millirems/year, with exemptions permitted in some cases of up to 500 millirems/year.

Source: The Nuclear Monitor (US), 22 Oct. 1990.

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