Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Health, North America

ENVIRONMENT: Infant Death Rates Fall After US Nuclear Reactors Close

Danielle Knight

WASHINGTON, Apr 26 2000 (IPS) - Infant mortality rates around five US nuclear power reactors dropped almost immediately after the reactors closed, according to a new study released Wednesday on the 14th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Raising questions whether allowable emissions of “low-level” radiation from nuclear plants endanger nearby residents, the study has prompted calls for the US government to begin considering adverse health effects associated with nuclear plants before renewing their operating licences.

The study was conducted by the New York-based Radiation and Public Health Project and published in Spring edition of “Environmental Epidemiology and Toxicology”, a scientific journal.

Joseph Mangano, the author of the study and a research associate at the Project, says it is the first to document improvements in health after a nuclear plant closes and supports other studies showing elevated childhood cancer near operating reactors.

“However, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), utilities and public health departments have never voluntarily performed a single study on cancer or other radiation-induced conditions,” he says.

Using public health statistics published by the government, Mangano examined infant death rates in counties within 50 miles and in the prevailing wind – or “downwind” – direction of five reactors across the United States.

In the first two years after the reactors closed, infant death rates fell 15 to 20 percent from the previous two years, compared to an average US decline of only six percent between 1985 and 1996.

In each of the five areas studied, no other nuclear reactor operated within 70 miles of the closed reactor, essentially creating a “nuclear-free zone,” says Mangano.

The study also details the fall in newly diagnosed leukaemia and cancer cases and birth defect deaths in children under five years in the four-county local area downwind from the Rancho Seco reactor, near the metropolitan area of Sacramento, California.

Mangano says this decline has continued through the first seven years after the June 1989 closing. In contrast, the local infant death rate rose in the two years after Rancho Seco began operations in 1974.

Mangano says in addition to the regions surrounding the five reactors in the study, he has recently found dramatic decreases in infant mortality rates near two reactors that closed in 1997.

In communities near the Big Rock Point reactor in Michigan, the percentage decrease in infant mortality rates was 54.1 percent. At the Maine Yankee reactor in Maine, the percentage decrease was 33.4 percent.

Mangano say people may have been affected by radioactivity that has made its way into the local air, water, milk, vegetation and fish.

While the study does not directly link the cause of the decreased infant mortality rates to less environmental exposure to radiation from power plants, some medical experts say the study confirms a pattern that links radiation and illness.

Other environmental factors, such as pesticide use, heavy industry, incinerators and waste dumps did not significantly change in the regions studied during that short two year time period, says Janette Sherman, a medical doctor who specialises in internal medicine and toxicology.

Sherman, who has written several books about the relationship between chemical exposure and disease, says the study confirms the best of public health principles: that when you remove a known cause of illness, health improves.

“What is gratifying about the research is that it showed childhood health measures increasing so dramatically and quickly after the reactors closed,” she says.

Environmental advocacy groups say the study raises public policy questions about the risks to the health of 42 million people in the United States living downwind and under 50 miles of nuclear power plants.

The Radiation and Public Health Project with the Standing for Truth About Radiation (STAR) Foundation, also based in New York, is urging the NRC to consider Mangano and other health studies when considering license renewal applications. Current NRC rules do not consider local health impacts.

Owners of 28 of the 103 reactors at 17 nuclear plants are scheduled to seek license renewals by 2003.

Many of these plants have questionable safety records, with documents showing numerous safety violations, says the STAR Foundation.

“Although many believe that emissions and leaks from nuclear power plants are harming those who live near these facilities, the federal government does not consider potential health effects when renewing licenses, says Christie Brinkley, a model who is on the board of the Foundation and is using her celebrity status to help focus public attention on this issue.

The study has already caught the attention of one lawmaker.

“At the very least, the government has a responsibility to determine whether emissions from these plants are harming people,” said Michael Forbes, a Democratic congressman, at a press conference here Wednesday.

His district in the eastern Long Island region of the state of New York lies across the Long Island Sound from Millstone Nuclear Power Station in the state of Connecticut.

For some residents living near the reactors who feel they have suffered from low-level radiation leaks from nearby reactors, the government’s inaction has been “maddening.”

Randy Snell, a New York resident who lives near the Brookhaven National Laboratory, learned several years ago that his seven-year- old daughter had developed a rare soft tissue cancer called rhabdomyosarcoma.

Snell has discovered 19 other cases of the same rare cancer in the county where he lives. In one area near the laboratory, the rate of cancer in children under 10 since 1994 is 15 times the national average, he says.

“State and federal public health agencies haven’t lifted a finger to confirm the link between Brookhaven and all these rare child cancers,” he says. “I hope this study forces them to act.”

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