Sunday, June 15, 2014

Republicans Believe It Would Be Cool to Glow in the Dark

It is a good idea that Harrisburg residents receive regular cancer screenings and tests. This is a smart idea for everyone. Harrisburg residents have their own particularly good reason for taking extra precautions. We have, compared to most others, increased exposure to radiation.

I am not out to create a panic. These higher levels of radiation exposure have been going on for decades now. Most of us seem to not be noticeably affected by this. I know there are readers out there who will be quick to point out there do not seem to be any statistically significant increased rates of most cancers in Harrisburg.

I even observed one politician claim that radiation is good for you. I suspect this politician found those paint chips he ate as a child were delicious.

There is much debate in the scientific community as to what actually causes cancer. There are numerous things that have been proven to increase cancers. Harrisburg is full of them: water traveling through lead pipes, people eating yummy burned red meat on our many restaurants, smoking those addictive cigarettes found in a few stores, drinking tasty chemicals in diet soda, etc.

Everyone is different. Some people have brief exposures to carcinogens and develop cancer. Others work and live in conditions surrounded by carcinogens and never develop cancers. Developing cancer could involved exposure to several different risks rather than just one. Genetics can be a factor. (Link to American Cancer Society at for more information.)

There is one particular potential cancer source that is fairly unique to Harrisburg. Perhaps you have heard of it. It is called Three Mile Island. If you are not familiar with it, you may be alone from a lot of the rest of the world. When traveling to foreign countries, an oft heard response when declaring one is from Harrisburg is “You’re from Three Mile Island!” Some foreigners appear disappointed that we do not, as rumored, glow in the dark.

If you seriously have not heard of it, I recommend you look up “Three Mile Island” in your favorite search engine and read about this bit of local history. It helped publicize a Jane Fonda movie.

For several decades now, radiation trapped in Three Mile Island nuclear plant has been deliberately slowly leaked out to alleviate adverse pressure. This is well known. It was joked decades ago that today people in Harrisburg would become mutants. We would all look grotesque. Sadly, our careers in zombie movies never materialized. Other than a few photographs of Harrisburg residenst taken after over consumption on Second Street bars, a quick visual survey of our residents confirms most of us look alright.

Most of us have become either accepting or ignorant of any health threats from nuclear energy radiation leakages. After all, the President of the United States went inside Three Mile Island and declared it safe.

I always liked the progression in those proclamations that Three Mile Island was safe. They sent the Lieutenant Governor in first to proclaim it was safe. After the Lieutenant Governor appeared alright, they sent the Governor in to proclaim it was safe. After the Governor seemed alright, then the President went inside Three Mile Island.

An interesting irony is that it was not always felt that nuclear power was so safe. In fact, just before Three Mile Island, there was growing evidence from the University of Pittsburgh and elsewhere that it was not safe. The interesting result of Three Mile Island being unsafe is it seems to have created the forces that quashed the very studies that may have shown it was not safe.

Ernest Sterglass, a University of Pittsburgh Professor who led their Radiation and Public Health Project, was finding data, just prior to the Three Mile Island incident, that cancer rates may be affected by radiation leakages occurring at other nuclear power plants. The cancer rates increased the closer people were living near the nuclear power plants. There was a strong hypothesis that the spikes in cancer rates were attributable to the nuclear power plants’ radiation leakages. (Link to “Secret Fallout” by Ernest Sternglass, available for free download at

These studies were preceded by ones conducted by Alice Stewart, who headed Oxford University’s Social and Preventive Medicine Department. She had discovered health risks to children exposed to low levels of radiation. She then studied nuclear power radiation risks with Thomas Mancuso of the University of Pittsburgh. Sternglass followed with his own research.

After Three Mile Island, there emerged an effort to reassure the public that nuclear radiation is safe. I recall speaking with Environmental Protection Agency employees who spoke about the changes in attitude.  A new President Ronald Reagan was supportive of nuclear power. Reagan was elected defeating Jimmy Carter, a nuclear engineer, and John Anderson, who sponsored the Price-Anderson Act that limited the liability of nuclear power companies for losses from any nuclear accidents. The new attitude among many public officials was to declare nuclear energy as safe to our heath. The result of Three Mile Island was not massive public objections to nuclear power. The result was general public acceptance of nuclear power.

Funding for research showing the problems of nuclear energy began disappearing. Industry researchers began questioning the past data. They used different radiation levels to show different results. They conducted different analyses. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission claims there were “no detectable” health consequences from the Three Mile Island incidence. Or, at least none they could find. (Link to: U.S. Nuclear  Regulatory Commission, “Backgrounder on the Three Mile Island Accident” at

When local residents, suspicious of local cancer rate increases, attempted to take the issue to court, it was the court findings that the cancer rates for the metropolitan area showed no increases. A Pennsylvania Health Department Select Committee found that months after the Three Mile Island crisis the rates of hypothyroidism increased twelve times above normal downwind where the leakages traveled. (Link to: Gordon K. MacLeod, “A Role for Public Health”, American Journal of Public Health, March 1982, at Yet, considering the entire area and not just those fewer “downwind”, our court system determined these rates were inconsequential.

I am not a radiation researcher. I would expect that using a larger population data drowned out any localized cancer rate increases. The courts, in their wisdom (or lack thereof) made a legal conclusion there were no health risks from the radiation leakages .

The U.S. Labor Department reached a different conclusion. They concluded that employees at nuclear weapons facilities, due to their work, have higher risks for cancer than do people who worked elsewhere. There will be readers who will argue these facilities were different. That is the point. These were not facilities leaking as much radiation as does Three Mile Island. The Labor Department has paid over $65 million compensation to over 1,000 employees. (Link to Hartford Business Journal at hartfordbusiness,com/article/201406109992 and to the Division of Energy Employees Occupational Compensation at

A legal determination is not a scientific one. Some studies that hypothesized there are health concerns from radiation leakages were not allowed to be completed. This research should be revitalized. We must let proper research determine the health risks, if any, from the radiation leaking from power plants.

Studies need to realize that the population to be studied is mobile. I recall listening to a number of women were were 17 years old when the Three Mile Island crisis happened. They all lived near Three Mile Island. They returned for a reunion, many living in various places around the country. It seemed quite coincidental that several mentioned they were sterile and that physicians could not find a reason why that was.

No scientific conclusion can be drawn from that. I do recall some area veterinarians commenting that, after the Three Mile Island crisis, there appeared to have been an increase in still births and infertility among cattle and other mammals. Humans are mammals. Few studied the effects on animals after Three Mile Island beyond testing milk, so I admit this is all conjecture. Proper scientific studies should determine if these serious concerns are real.

If studies do reemerge that look at health risks of those exposed to radiation leakages, we must consider some data challenges. Looking at the cancer rates of people currently  living in the Harrisburg area muddles the figures. Many of those who were here when the Three Mile Island incident have moved away. Many people have moved in since. Area residents have had different years and levels of exposures to the subsequent radiation leakages. This needs to be taken into account.

So, to be safe, just in case the old hypotheses are correct: Watch out for signs of cancer. See a  physician regularly. Harrisburg residents may or may not be at higher risks for some kinds of cancer. So protect yourselves.


Post a Comment

<< Home