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Nuclear accident report faulted

Not all studies regarding the health effects of the Three Mile Island accident have reached optimistic conclusions.

BY TRAVIS DUNN | PITTSBURGH | November 4, 2002

"Several hundred people at the time of the accident reported nausea, vomiting, hair loss and skin rashes, and a number said their pets died or had symptoms of radiation exposure."

—Dr. Steven Wing

A new study on long-term cancer mortality rates in a five-mile radius surrounding the Three Mile Island (TMI) disaster "found no significant increase overall in deaths from cancer."

However, not all studies regarding the health effects of the TMI accident have reached such optimistic conclusions.

The worst nuclear power plant failure in U.S. history, the accident at TMI released radioactive gases into the area around Middletown, Pa., on March 28, 1979.

The new study, led by Dr. Evelyn Talbott of the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health, was published Nov. 1 on the Web site of Environmental Health Perspectives. In the last decade, several studies have been published on the possible health effects of the accident, and not all of them have reached conclusions as optimistic as Talbott's.

Talbott's study, focusing on cancer mortality rates over 20 years following the TMI accident, relied on interviews of 32,135 residents conducted by the Pennsylvania Department of Health and correlated this data with death statistics from the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

The new study analyzed mortality rates caused by lung, throat, breast, lymphatic and hematopoietic cancers. Thyroid cancer was also considered, but the study found only one death attributable to that type of cancer. Chronic lymphatic leukemia, Hodgkin's disease and central nervous system cancer were excluded from consideration.

The study, however, did find a slight increase in deaths attributable to lymphatic and hematopoietic cancers in women, as well as a slight increase in risk for these two types of cancer in men.

"While these findings overall convey good news for TMI residents, the slight increased risk of death from lymphatic and hematopoietic cancers may warrant further investigation," Talbott said. "Also, while our 13-year follow-up indicated a significant upward trend in breast cancer risk related to radiation exposure the day of the accident, this relationship was no longer significant in our current study."

Talbott's study was funded by the Three Mile Island Public Health Fund, which was created by a court settlement in a class-action suit against the General Public Utilities Nuclear Corporation, the owner of TMI, as well as other companies connected with the plant.

But a paper published in 1997 came to different conclusions.

Dr. Steven Wing, of the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill), published the 1997 paper that determined cancer rates downwind of TMI were two to ten times higher than cancer rates upwind of the accident.

"Several hundred people at the time of the accident reported nausea, vomiting, hair loss and skin rashes, and a number said their pets died or had symptoms of radiation exposure. We figured that if that were possible, we ought to look at [the data] again. After adjusting for pre-accident cancer incidence, we found a striking increase in cancers downwind from Three Mile Island," Wing said, quoted in a 1997 National Institutes of Health press release. "I would be the first to say that our study doesn't prove by itself that there were high-level radiation exposures, but it is part of a body of evidence that is consistent with high exposures."

Wing has also been sharply critical of Talbott's past work, particularly of a study Talbott published in 2000.

Talbott's 2000 study "does little to increase our understanding of the accident's health impact" and "did not consider the possibility that some people received radiation doses from the TMI accident that were substantially higher than background," Wing wrote in a letter published in the December 2000 edition of "Environmental Health Perspectives."

Both Talbott's 2000 study, as well as two studies led by Maureen Hatch of Columbia University, "began with the assumption that the maximum possible radiation risk doses from the accident were well below average annual background radiation levels."

Hatch's studies, like Talbott's, were funded by the Three Mile Island Public Health Fund. Wing's study was paid for by the nonprofit John Snow Institute, which in turn received its funding from the plaintiff's attorneys in the class action suit against the GPU Nuclear Corp.

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