The Kids Are All Nuked?

by Howard Fienberg
May 6, 2002

The public has a (usually quiet) fear of nuclear power, fed by the threat of war during the Cold War, the accident at Three Mile Island and even movies like the China Syndrome.


On April 30, the Radiation Public Health Project (RPHP) provided another reason for concern. They did not shout "fire" from the rafters and warn Americans that they all were going to die from radiation poisoning. By contrast, they strove to show a tangible health benefit from eliminating nuclear power plants -- specifically, decreased infant mortality. The RPHP claimed to have found large declines in infant mortality in surrounding communities for up to six years after these communities' nuclear power plants were closed.


Showing Skepticism


Faced with this perplexing study, New York Times environment reporter Andrew C. Revkin took a skeptical stance and consulted an authoritative scientist to conclude his coverage. Dr. John Boice Jr., an epidemiologist with the National Cancer Institute, directed a major study of disease patterns around nuclear facilities in 1991. He studied more than 900,000 cancer deaths in all groups between 1950 and 1984 in counties near nuclear facilities. Not only was there no evidence of increased cancer risk, but the rate of childhood leukemia was actually found to be higher before the plants began operating.


Boice brought a better sense of perspective to the story: "There are so many other important things to worry about in terms of radiation -- like what we are going to do with the waste and terrorism issue."


Looking for Data


The RPHP's press release quoted New York state assemblyman Richard Brodsky, who expressed relief that there finally was "accurate data attaching the nuclear power plants to death and injury in the host communities." But is that really what the RPHP found?


Presumably, an increase in radiation exposure might be linked to adverse outcomes for infants. Since nuclear power plants have proliferated over the last several decades, health records during that period might provide some clues. That was the kind of authoritative data used by Boice's 1991 study that found no evidence to link nuclear facilities to decreased community health. By contrast, the RPHP turned the usual arguments about nuclear risk upside down and inside out, arguing that improvements in infant health were linked to the closing of nuclear power plants. Unfortunately for the RPHP's case, infant mortality rates in the United States (though lamentably higher than several other industrial nations) have been sharply declining for decades. In fact, they have fallen from 20 deaths per 1,000 in 1970 to a low of 7.2 per 1,000 in 1998. (This relatively good news would be even better were it not for the impact of in vitro fertilization clinics, which lead to an increasing number of vulnerable multiple-birth infants).


The nuclear link is hard to explain biologically, since the best predictor of infant mortality risk is low birth weight, a complex figure influenced by maternal behavior, family structure, health care access and race and ethnicity. Cancers or genetic mutations, which could presumably come from radiation exposure, don't play much of a role. Radioactive emissions from nuclear power plants are minute compared to the background radiation emitted by natural rocks and cosmic rays. Decades of research on nuclear power plants have shown no clear link to health risks for community residents. America's worst nuclear power accident, Three Mile Island in 1979, did not even lead to an increase in cancer deaths among people living within a five-mile radius (according to an Environmental Health Perspectives study in the summer of 2000).


Moreover, the RPHP's methodology is questionable, since the study lacks any control group for comparison. The study only looked at the communities surrounding eight closed nuclear plants and compared their infant mortality rates to those of the nation as a whole. Properly done, the study should have found control communities (some near operating nuclear plants, some nowhere near any plants), matched for poverty rates, tobacco usage, and other relevant factors.


Revkin's article is so far the only coverage the RPHP has managed to drum up and it hardly helped the group's case. They had much better luck two years ago with a similar report; not because it was any better, but because they wheeled out super-model Christie Brinkley as their celebrity spokesperson. Even Inside Edition could not (and did not) turn down that kind of story.


As Brinkley demanded at that press conference two years ago, "If closing the nuclear power plants was not responsible for the decline in infant deaths, what was?" After all this time, the RPHP seems no closer to the most obvious answer: Public health improvements in countering low birth weight and other risks for infant mortality.

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