The Kids Are All Nuked?
by Howard Fienberg
The public has a (usually quiet) fear of nuclear power,
fed by the threat of war during the Cold War, the accident at
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.
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
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
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
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.
See the original: http://www.tcsdaily.com/article.aspx?id=050602A
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