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Pitt study finds no rise in number of cancer deaths

Critics cite flaws in method and data

Friday, April 28, 2000

By Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Radioactivity released by the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979 hasn't caused an increase in cancer deaths among people living in a five-mile radius of the Harrisburg-area plant, according to new research from the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health.

But further study is needed, researchers say, both to analyze the incidence of non-fatal cancers and to track deaths over the 20 years or more it takes for many cancers to appear.

"This study helps put to rest the lingering question of whether the residents of the Three Mile Island area are experiencing an increase in cancer deaths as a result of the nuclear accident," said Evelyn Talbott, an epidemiologist and associate professor at the school.

"Based on the first 13 years of data, there is no apparent increase in cancer deaths among the 34,000 people living there at the time of the accident."

The study was published yesterday on the Web site of Environmental Health Perspectives, a journal of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and will appear in the June issue of the journal.

While several previous studies with similar findings have been conducted and reported, the Pitt study is the most extensive due to the 13-year time frame -- more than twice as long as previous studies. It also factors in information developed by the state Department of Health in surveys conducted after the accident about residents' smoking and education levels, as well as everyday background radiation exposure.

Talbott, the principal investigator on the study, said yesterday that the new study relies on cancer mortality data from 1979 through 1992, and researchers are assembling new data on cancer deaths that will extend the study through 1998.

Researchers also are beginning to review data from 1979 through 1995 on the incidence of non-fatal cancers.

"We have to do follow-ups on cancer incidence rates because not everyone with cancer dies immediately," Talbott said. "To lay [the concerns] completely to rest, that's what we have to do."

The accident at the Metropolitan Edison nuclear power plant on Three Mile Island -- often referred to as the worst nuclear accident in American history -- occurred at 4 a.m., Mar. 28, 1979, when a series of malfunctions led to a partial reactor core meltdown and the release of plumes of radioactive gases into the atmosphere.

The Pitt study notes that scientists have calculated that the average person present in the area during the 10 days after the accident was exposed to considerably less radiation than the annual dose an individual receives from the everyday environment in the United States.

The study's findings didn't satisfy two citizen groups from the TMI area.

Eric Epstein, chairman of TMI Alert, a group formed two years before the accident to oppose nuclear power, said the Pitt study is "seriously flawed" because it relies heavily on discredited data from a 1979 state Health Department survey of TMI area residents and doesn't focus on areas of maximum exposure.

By limiting the study area to a five-mile radius around the plant, researchers fail to take into account the directional exposure produced by wind and weather at the time of the accident, he said.

"If you follow the direction of the radioactive plumes I can find you cancer clusters 10 miles out from the plant," he said.

Betty Baker, president of the TMI Citizens Monitoring Network, which operates two monitors measuring beta and gamma radiation levels, said the study's cancer data are incomplete.

"I've got cancer in the family. I lived three miles away at the time of the accident and I've never been contacted or surveyed by anyone," she said. "Lots of people have moved away and aren't here anymore to be studied, yet they are also dying from cancers."

Mortality indicators examined in the Pitt study included all heart disease, all malignancies, as well as specific cancers that are known to be sensitive to radioactivity: bronchus, trachea and lung; breast (women only); lymphatic and hematopoietic tissue (blood-forming organs), excluding chronic lymphocytic leukemia and Hodgkin's disease; and the central nervous system. Thyroid cancer was considered, but no deaths were reported during the study period.

Initial results indicated a significantly higher mortality from all causes among the TMI population compared with residents of the surrounding three-county area, with the largest number of deaths from heart disease. However, after adjustment for smoking and education, which has a direct bearing on lifestyle, the increases were no longer apparent.

While the overall study found no significant cancer death increases related to exposure, Talbott said there are some inconsistent numbers for four or five specific types of cancer, including breast cancer, that bear watching as post-1992 data are added.

Those cancers are supposed to go up with increasing exposure to radiation, but the numbers don't always fit that pattern in the Three Mile Island data studied so far.

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