Do kids who live near Vermont Yankee have more strontium 90 in their teeth than the rest of us? Charlotte Dennett says she's working to ensure that they don't. The Vermont Progressive Party candidate for attorney general is making the issue of radioactive emissions and elevated cancer rates in Windham County — home to the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant — a focal point of her campaign.
"It's time we have a statewide conversation about the C-word," Dennett says, in a written statement issued Tuesday. "Legislators have been warned not to raise the issue because the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, ever since the 1990s, has claimed jurisdiction over health issues related to nuclear power plants. But the NRC does not control our constitutional right of free speech, and as a candidate for attorney general, my duty is to protect the health and safety of all Vermonters."
Much of Dennett's presentation will be based on research done by the Radiation and Public Health Project (RPHP), a New York City-based group of scientists and health professionals concerned about the health risks associated with nuclear power and atomic weapons testing.
The group's executive director is Joseph Mangano, an epidemiologist with a Master's degree in public health. Since 1994, Mangano and other members of RPHP have published 26 letters and articles in peer-reviewed publications, including five on the purported link between nuclear plants and the presence in the human body of strontium 90. The man-made radioactive isotope, which first captured public attention after above-ground nuclear weapons tests were done in the 1950s, is only formed by atomic explosions or nuclear reactors.
RPHP is perhaps best known for its so-called "tooth fairy project", which analyzed nearly 5000 baby teeth from children living near nuclear power plants for the presence of Strontium 90 and compared them to children in the general population. Although state and federal agencies study radiation emissions from nuke plants and their presence in the air, water and soil, Mangano claims that the tooth fairy project is the only one of its kind to measure radiation levels in the bodies of Americans living near nuclear facilities.
According to Mangano, the study got "significant" results from seven nuclear power plants, where researchers were able to analyze at least 100 teeth.
"We found consistently that the levels are highest closer to the plant — 30 to 50 percent higher — among children living in the county or two closest to the plant," Mangano said. "Also, the levels are rising over time. Kids born in the late ’90s had a 50 percent higher rate than kids born in the late 80s."
Mangano points out, however, that Vermont Yankee was not one of the seven plants that had 100 or more baby teeth to analyze. Scientists had only nine teeth from residents of Windham and Cheshire counties, which flank the plant, and 17 other teeth from other parts of Vermont and New Hampshire. While lab analyses did find elevated strontium levels in the teeth closest to the plant, the numbers were too small to be statistically significant.
"However, I will say that in our experience from the seven other [nuclear] plants, if there was a pattern established over a couple of dozen teeth, that pattern held up over many, many teeth," he adds. In the few teeth that were analyzed in Vermont and New Hampshire, the average level of strontium 90 in Windham and Cheshire counties were 62 percent higher than elsewhere in Vermont and New Hampshire.
Another area of interest of Mangano's and his group is the relationship between iodine and thyroid cancer. Radioactive iodine is also only created when nuclear weapons explode and reactors operate. Unlike strontium 90, which goes directly to the bones and teeth when absorbed by the body, radioactive iodine goes straight to the thyroid gland, where it attacks and kills cells.
In 1997, after years of government denials about the links between above-ground weapons testing and thyroid cancer, the National Institutes of Health produced a massive study showing Americans' exposure to Iodine 131 based on where they lived, their age, gender, how much milk they consumed, and so forth. The study estimated that between 11,000 ands 212,000 developed thyroid cancer as a result of the Nevada above-ground bomb tests conducted from 1951 to 1958. And, that's not including the radioactive fallout that hit the U.S. from Soviet-era tests.
"Thyroid cancer is the fastest rising type of cancer in the United States," Mangano adds. "It's tripled since 1980." The list of its known causes is pretty short. Topping the list: exposure to radioactive iodine. An RPHP analysis of public health stats showed the highest rates of thyroid cancer in southern New York, central New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania, where there are 16 reactors.
It's worth noting that some observers have taken RPHP's work with a healthy grain of iodized salt. In a lengthy Nov. 11, 2003 story, The New York Times says that, despite RPHP's work being published in peer-reviewed journals, "their credibility with the scientific establishment hovers around zero." The Times article goes on to quote the public health commissioner of Westchester County, N.Y., home of the Indian Point nuclear power plant, who described the group's findings on strontium 90 as "junk science." A similar editorial in the Chicago Tribune characterized RPHP's findings as "technically accurate, but meaningless."
"Certain professionals say that, but other professionals say our work is perfectly legit," Mangano counters. "Like a lot of things in science, new frontiers do not always go through smoothly." He cites as an example the decades-long battle to get the medical establishment and the federal government to finally acknowledge the link between smoking and lung cancer.
One can only hope the government figures this stuff out before Vermont Yankee's second license expires in 2032, if not sooner.