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What's behind claims of elevated cancer rates near Vermont Yankee

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Cancer isn't just a virulent growth that afflicts the human body -- it's also a dangerous weapon that can infect the body politic. Mere mention of the word "cancer" in a headline can be enough to blacklist a geographic region or bankrupt a company. So when an independent group of scientists from New York claimed recently that there may be a link between elevated cancer rates in Windham County and the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon, the contention further inflamed an already incendiary issue. The question is, are those allegations a legitimate public-health concern -- or agenda-driven pseudo-science?

Either way, the organization that compiled these statistics, the Brooklyn-based Radiation and Public Health Project (RPHP), has attracted enough media attention and financial support over the years to warrant serious attention. RPHP has published numerous books and journal articles, was profiled a few months ago in The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, and USA Today, and just received a $25,000 grant from the New Jersey Legislature.

RPHP's allegations about elevated cancer rates in the area around Vermont Yankee were circulated to the press just as the debate over nuclear-reactor safety was coming to a head in Windham County. Last week, the Vermont Public Service Board (PSB) approved a request by the owners of Vermont Yankee to boost the plant's power output by 20 percent. If the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) signs off on the power "uprate," Vermont Yankee will become the oldest nuclear reactor in the country to attempt a power increase of this scale.

Uprate supporters and opponents alike claimed the board's ruling as a victory. Entergy, the company that bought Vermont Yankee in 2002, says the uprate is necessary for the plant to keep providing cheap and reliable power to Vermonters for years to come -- Vermont Yankee is the state's largest energy source, generating about one-third of the electricity consumed in Vermont.

But uprate opponents, including anti-nuclear citizens' groups the New England Coalition and Shut VY Now, say they succeeded in convincing the PSB to impose several conditions on Entergy, notably, the requirement that the 31-year-old reactor be subjected to an "independent engineering assessment." A similar review of the Maine Yankee reactor in 1996 led to that plant being permanently shut down -- an outcome anti-nuke activists see as possible at Vermont Yankee as well. They note that three other nuclear reactors built at around the same time have all been permanently closed due to age-related problems.

The PSB doesn't have the statutory authority to approve or reject the uprate based on health and safety grounds -- that responsibility belongs to the NRC. Still, in the months preceding its decision, the PSB received more than 350 written comments from the public, many of them expressing concerns about increased radiation emissions if the uprate goes through.

Others, like licensed nuclear-reactor operator Arnie Gundersen, appeared before the PSB in person. He says that a 20 percent boost in power would result in a 30 percent increase in radiation to the surrounding community, especially Vernon Elementary School, which is across the road from Vermont Yankee.

Several weeks before the board's ruling, Shut VY Now circulated to Vermont newspapers data from RPHP claiming that from the 1980s to the 1990s, cancer death rates in Windham County jumped dramatically while cancer death rates elsewhere in the state were dropping. The group says its findings are based on data compiled from the National Center for Health Statistics. RPHP's cancer conclusions were also posted on ibrattleboro.com, an Internet-based community bulletin board serving southern Vermont.

But Vermont's health officials and other regional cancer experts aren't declaring a public-health emergency just yet. In fact, some are calling the group's interpretation of the numbers inaccurate, unscientific and alarmist. Stephen Minkin, a cancer expert in Brattleboro and nuclear-energy opponent, calls this report "a red herring, bogus issue" that only distracts the public from legitimate discussions about nuclear reactor safety.

The author of the cancer findings is RPHP's national coordinator, Joseph Mangano, an epidemiologist with a Master's degree in public health. He explains that RPHP is an independent organization comprised of scientists and other health professionals who are dedicated to understanding the risks of cancer associated with nuclear-power plant emissions and atomic bomb explosions. Since it was formed in 1980, the group has attracted lots of media attention for controversial studies it has published in medical journals claiming a link between nuclear reactors and infant and childhood cancer rates.

The group's most famous report, sometimes referred to as "the baby tooth study," was modeled after a 1950s study assessing the public-health impact of nuclear fallout from the military's atomic weapons tests in the Nevada desert. A researcher at Washington University in St. Louis collected about 300,000 baby teeth from around the country in order to measure their levels of strontium-90, a highly toxic element that is only produced by atomic explosions and nuclear reactors. That study found that strontium-90 levels steadily increased nationwide until 1963, when the United States and the Soviet Union signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty. Levels dropped precipitously thereafter.

Mangano's group, which repeated the "tooth fairy" study on a much smaller scale -- they gathered slightly more than 4000 baby teeth -- found that after years of decline starting in 1963, strontium-90 levels began to swing upward again in the 1980s and 1990s, when nuclear-power plants proliferated in the United States. RPHP's study found the highest levels of strontium-90 in counties that were closest to nuclear reactors. Their research also linked elevated strontium-90 levels to increased incidences of childhood cancer in those regions.

A second RPHP study that garnered a lot of media attention found that in the first two years after a nuclear reactor was closed, rates of birth defects, childhood cancer and infant deaths plunged in counties directly downwind from those reactors. For example, in the two years after the 1989 closure of the Rancho Seco reactor about 25 miles south of Sacramento, California, RPHP measured a threefold decrease in infant deaths. RPHP's researchers reached similar conclusions at all eight of the closed reactors they examined.

"Generally, what we find is that infant death rates and childhood death rates tend to be higher near nuclear plants," explains Mangano, in a phone interview from his Brooklyn office. "We're finding that there are a number of increases in underweight births, childhood cancers and so on, in addition to the increase in strontium-90."

Mangano's assertions about cancer death rates for Wind-ham County are just as troubling. While he cautions that "deaths from cancer in Windham County children are rare, and a statistical comparison cannot be made," he nonetheless concludes that from the 1980s to the 1990s, death rates for all causes in Windham County children ages 1 to 19 rose 1 percent, while they declined by 27 percent in the rest of Vermont.

Likewise, Mangano asserts that from the 1980s to the 1990s, Windham County cancer rates rose 21 percent for people ages 20 to 54, while they fell 2 percent in other Vermont counties. For people 85 years and older, the Windham County cancer rate jumped 27 percent, compared to a 4-percent rise in other Vermont counties. And for breast cancer, Vermont's most common form of cancer, Mangano calculated that Windham County experienced a 34 percent increase for women ages 25 to 44, while the numbers in the rest of the state fell by 22 percent.

"In light of this information," Mangano concludes, "a careful analysis of any connection between radioactive emissions breathed or consumed in the local diet must be made before any decision is made to expand Vermont Yankee plant capacity or extend the plant's operating license."

Scary findings, if they're to be trusted. But not so fast, say those who crunch the numbers for the state. A quick look at the statistics from the Vermont Cancer Registry, which are considered the most reliable and up-to-date figures available, reveals that Mangano's calculations may not justify his conclusions. For example, the Registry shows that in Windham County, the breast-cancer rate from 1995 to 1999 was 112.8 cases per 100,000 people, compared to Chittenden County, which had a rate of 145.5 cases per 100,000 people, and Addison County, which had 165.8 cases. According to the Vermont Cancer Registry, Windham County's breast-cancer rate was not only lower than most of Vermont, but also below the national average.

In fact, a closer vetting of the numbers also shows that the counties in Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts that are closest to Vermont Yankee actually had lower cancer death rates than counties that are farther away, says Stephen Minkin, a certified tumor registrar who works in Brattleboro. While Minkin isn't saying that living close to Vermont Yankee lowers your risk of cancer, he points to these figures as a warning for anyone who might be tempted to read too much into the numbers.

Minkin says initially he was fooled by Mangano's findings -- which he calls "a well-written sucker punch" -- but eventually concluded that the numbers don't hold up under closer scrutiny. "Basically, it was not the kind of data that you can use in any kind of analytical way," Minkin says. "They don't have the kind of smoking gun which [Mangano] suggests. It's crap."

The folks at the Vermont Department of Health are as skeptical of Mangano's findings as Minkin, but more diplomatic in their assessment. Health Department officials acknowledge that there is evidence of a link between exposures to high levels of radiation and certain types of cancer, but say that "there does not appear to be a high level of statistical significance when comparing certain rates." In other words, the number of cancer cases Mangano looked at in Windham County was too small to draw any meaningful conclusions.

Findings from the National Cancer Institute support a similar conclusion. In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in March 1991, the NCI found no increase in the risk of cancer for people living in 107 counties containing or closely adjacent to 62 nuclear facilities -- including Windham County.

Vermont's health officials are not the first ones to look at Mangano's findings with a skeptical eye. An article about RPHP in the November 11, 2003 issue of The New York Times notes that despite the fact that the group's members have published several articles in peer-reviewed medical journals, "their credibility with the scientific establishment hovers near zero." The Times quotes the health commissioner of Westchester County, New York, home of the Indian Point nuclear power plant. He called the organization's findings about strontium-90 levels near the plant "junk science."

Likewise, a scathing editorial in the February 1 issue of the Chicago Tribune, entitled "Toxic Math," questions similar conclusions by RPHP at the Dresden 2 and 3 nuclear reactors near Morris, Illinois. The Tribune asked the head of the epidemiological division of the Illinois Department of Health to evaluate Mangano's findings. His conclusion? RPHP's findings were "technically accurate, but meaningless."

Nevertheless, RPHP's research continues to garner political support, and financial backing, from both public and private sources. The organization has received grant money from celebrities like Alec Baldwin and Susan Sarandon, and in February was awarded a grant from the New Jersey Legislature to continue exploring possible links between Strontium-90 in baby teeth and rates of childhood cancer near nuclear reactors.

And Mangano remains unfazed by his critics. Pointing out that the federal government still does not monitor health patterns, mortality rates or incidences of cancer near nuclear reactors, he says simply that "we see things one way, and government researchers see them another way."

Minkin believes there's something insidious in Mangano's cancer figures for Windham County. "This is using cancer for cheap political ends," he says, adding that these kinds of claims undermine the scientific credibility of legitimate no-nukes arguments. Minkin asserts that Vermont Yankee should be shut down for other reasons, such as the problem of storing radioactive waste, the risk of accidents from age-related wear or terrorist attacks, and the harm done to people who mine radioactive ore. And there's an even more pressing health risk to all Vermonters, he notes: "If there's a nuclear accident at Vermont Yankee, all of the survivors will get cancer."

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