Health Risks of Nuclear Power and Testing
Joseph Mangano, MPH, MBA, is the Executive Director of the Radiation and Public Health Project.
Using baby teeth, researchers have analyzed the amount of the radioactive chemical strontium-90 in peoples’ bodies who lived in the 1960s—an era of above ground nuclear testing in the U.S. Through this research, scientists at the Radiation and Public Health Project (RPHP) in New York are making the connection between strontium-90 and cancer. Host Steve Curwood talks with the executive director of RPHP, Joseph Mangano, about this study and other studies that link a person’s proximity to nuclear power plants and cancer.
YOUNG: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts - this is Living on Earth. I’m Jeff Young.
CURWOOD: And I’m Steve Curwood. Nuclear radiation can cause cancer, and when America stopped testing nuclear bombs in the atmosphere in 1963, research showed a decline in the levels of dangerous fallout in people. Now scientists at the Radiation and Public Health Project have published studies that apply the methods of that research to cancer rates of people living near nuclear power plants, with some startling results. With me now is Joseph Mangano, he’s an epidemiologist and the executive director of this project. Mr. Mangano, welcome to Living on Earth.
MANGANO: Hi, how are you?
CURWOOD: Yeah, I read that you recently acquired some 85,000 baby teeth from an old World War II gunnery range in St. Louis. What’s the story behind how you got those teeth and what do baby teeth have to do anyway with your research?
MANGANO: To tell you how we acquired them, I’ll have to go back in history a bit to 1958 – a time when the United States and Soviet Union were engaged in a nuclear arms race. A lot of people were very worried about, not just nuclear war, but about the fallout from the bomb tests, and a group of citizens and scientists in St. Louis conceived the baby tooth study, in which they collected 320,000 baby teeth.
The purpose was to measure radioactive strontium-90 in baby teeth. And our group in the late 90’s began the same kind of tooth study near nuclear reactors in the U.S. And one day, I got a phone call from one of the faculty there, and he said that Joe, we were out at a storage area and we found 85,000 baby teeth leftover. This is a goldmine for researchers.
CURWOOD: So, what did you do with it?
MANGANO: One thing that original Washington University study did not do in the 60’s was look at the question, “What did atomic bomb tests do to people? How many people got cancer from bomb test fallout?” So, we took 6,000 teeth, males from St. Louis who were born in 1959, ’60, and ’61, who donated an incisor tooth and were not breastfed, and we did two things.
First of all, we wrote health surveys to people who we found a current address for, and second, we asked the Missouri health department to search their death records over the last 30 years. And out of all that we came up with a hundred tooth donors who have had cancer by age 50.
We tested them in a laboratory for the same strontium-90; we also tested 200 teeth of healthy people. And what we found was staggering. We found that people who had died of cancer have more than double the strontium-90 level in their teeth from fallout than healthy people.
CURWOOD: How does strontium-90 enter the body, and how does it affect the body?
MANGANO: That’s a good question, and let’s just take it from the beginning: an atomic bomb explodes above the desert in Nevada. Many, many Americans remember the massive fallout clouds – they look like big mushroom clouds. Within that cloud are tiny metal particles of more than a hundred different radioactive chemicals, strontium-90 being one.
The cloud is then carried by prevailing winds and the fallout return to earth through precipitation and entered human bodies through the food chain. It rained into municipal water supplies, into pastures where cows graze. The strontium is chemically similar to calcium and the body thinks it’s calcium, so when you drink a glass of milk with strontium-90 in it, it goes right to the stomach, it very quickly goes into the blood stream, and just as quickly attaches to bone and teeth, which is just was calcium does, only calcium is healthy for the body. Strontium-90 is destructive.
It’s especially harmful because it attaches to bone, but it penetrates into the bone marrow. And in the bone marrow, the red and white blood cells that are the basis of the human immune system; the human immune response are formed, causing not just bone cancer or blood cancers, but essentially all cancers and even all immune diseases. It is a deadly chemical.
CURWOOD: Joseph Mangano, I want to turn now from radiation exposure from nuclear bomb testing to the matter of nuclear power. Your organization has a project you call the Tooth Fairy Project where you look at radiation hazards from nuclear power plants. What have you found from this research so far?
MANGANO: We found that close to nuclear plants the levels of strontium-90 are considerable higher than areas far away. Number two, we found that levels are going up – since the late 1980s they’ve gone up about 50 percent, as nuclear plants get older, and are corroding more, and emitting more radiation. And number three, we found the link with childhood cancer. We found that in counties closest to nuclear plants in New York and New Jersey, when strontium-90 in teeth went up, childhood cancer went up; when strontium-90 went down, childhood cancer went down.
CURWOOD: What tests have you conducted that show the effects of before and after a nuclear power plant closes?
MANGANO: We’ve done two studies, which looked at eight nuclear plants in the United States that were shut down permanently during the 1980’s and the 1990’s. And we found that in the first two years after nuclear reactors shut there was a very sharp plunge in the rate of infants that died, in the rate of children born with birth defects, and in the rate of children diagnosed with cancer.
CURWOOD: When you say the rates plunged, what exactly are you talking about?
MANGANO: Typically, childhood cancer rates go up slowly by say one percent a year. We found that in the first two years a decline of 25 percent. If you want to reduce childhood cancer, near nuclear plants, according to our research and of course needs to be followed up, but a quarter of them can be eliminated simply by closing the nuclear plant.
CURWOOD: Joseph Mangano is an epidemiologist and the executive director of the Radiation and Public Health Project in New York. Thank you so much, sir.
MANGANO: Oh, thank you.
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