Synthesis/Regeneration 10   (Spring 1996)

A Citizen Survey of Radiation Health Effects

by Susan Lee,
Earth and Sky Women's Peace Caravan for a Compassionate Society and Austin Greens

In November 1993, I began working full time on radiation and health issues (see inside front cover). Because of the focus on breast cancer and radiation of the upcoming conference of my sponsor, the Foundation for a Compassionate Society, I was asked to look at breast cancer rates around the South Texas (Nuclear) Project (STNP) and the Pantex nuclear weapons plant near Amarillo. Because the nuclear power plant was relatively new (came on line in late 1988 and mid 1989) I did not expect to see any changes in breast cancer, a long latency disease, in the statistics available at the time, which only included mortality, and not incidence, and ended with 1992, four years of data. That was my first surprise.

There was an abrupt jump... in breast cancer deaths in 1990, after both reactors had been on line over a year.

There was an abrupt jump, even in small numbers, in breast cancer deaths in 1990, after both reactors had been on line over a year. An epidemiologist from a top medical school explained that radiation doesn't just instigate tumors, it also promotes them; so if something is below noticeable threshold or in remission and the host receives a "dose," then you get individual tragedy and statistical leaps.

Initially I had cast a wide net, looking at statistics for a number of cancer types and birth indices in eight counties, some in the direction of the prevailing winds and others outside of the wind patterns but adjacent. The complicating factor was that all counties were in the Texas petrochemical belt. For example, in the host county of Matagorda, Oxychem and Hearst-Celonese had plants, while Dow Chemical's big facility in Brazoria County was only miles away.

Luckily, all those plants were established at least five years before the nuke came on line, so I could do a before-and-after picture, which was what I chose to do, rather than simply compare the rates for various cancer and birth problems with control counties. As a control, during the second year of the project, after I'd narrowed the focus counties to four which were the most downwind and closest, so likely hosting the most workers, I compared their rates with statewide rates for cancer mortality and birth weight.

By February 1994, after two and a half months of research (including background reading of books by Sternglass, John Gofman, Jay Gould, Samuel Epstein and others with physics, medical and statistical credentials), I found myself frantically analyzing columns of yearly data on a number of health aspects: breast, digestive system, respiratory cancers and leukemia; birth weights and defects, infant mortality, etc.

Looking at small numbers on a yearly basis, county by county, it was hard to see a pattern, but then I remembered what Sternglass had done in examining infant mortality data after Three Mile Island: he'd combined downwind areas and compared before-and-after years. The night before I was to present to the conference, the pattern emerged for the South Texas nuke area: there had been noticeable changes in every cancer I looked at except respiratory, which had mysteriously declined after the nuke began operating. (Several commentators speculated that this was due to the departure from the area of the construction crews, who may have had higher-than-average smoking rates.)

The very low (under 3.5 pounds) birth weight category also had risen. (In the spring of 1995, as I let my computer calculate the rates I had done with a pencil the year before, Jay Gould confirmed that already there was statistical significance to the increase in this sensitive and early indicator of environmental toxicity.) Birth defects appeared to have soared, especially in 1989 and 1992, but the state changed its birth defects registry in 1989, making it harder to compare before-and-after, and in frustration with this and with the fact that Texas only in 1994 started a very limited birth defects registry, I dropped study of this factor after a cursory examination.

Ernest Sternglass had recommended I correlate emissions of I131 from the nuke with infant mortality and low birth weight babies, so I'd gone to the regional Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for the semi-annual release reports, and got someone to explain to me how to total the notations, but I had encountered two half-year gaps in the I131 emissions, which the NRC officials explained as meaning there were no emissions of that element. One of them coincided with the largest leap in birth defects and infant mortality, so I was suspicious, but have yet to file a Freedom of Information Act request to follow through, as I got caught up in trying to stop the reactors coming back on line in the spring of '94. research would get nowhere as long as the government controlled, and had screwed up, the major data base (Japanese A-bomb survivor study)...

My decision to opt for action rather than more research was partly spurred by the comment of the godfather of radiation health research, Dr. John Gofman, whose impeccable credentials have not spared him the scathing criticism of the nuclear industry once he turned against the whole enterprise in the early seventies as a result of open-minded examination of health effects related to nuclear testing and power. Gofman, an early and outstanding nuclear chemist, is also an M.D. who authored pioneering coronary research as a professor at UC-Berkeley and headed the first biomedical lab at Lawrence Livermore. He advised me that health research would get nowhere as long as the government controlled, and had screwed up, the major data base (Japanese A-bomb survivor study) upon which the risk estimates and "allowable exposures", including emissions standards, are based.

Nonetheless, the organizer, the mother and the former ace biology student in me couldn't let go of the health impact angle, so over the last two years, woven around political theater, lobbying, and the use of a mobile museum aimed at the power plant, the Sierra Blanca dump, nuclear testing, and Pantex expansion efforts, I've continued to add refinements to the study, with tips from a former Department of Energy epidemiologist who left in controversy related to his findings that weapons lab workers' health had been affected by exposure.

In the spring of 1994, Shaun Stenshol and Rodney Doerscher locked onto the headquarters of the utility which is the dominant partner of the four city group that owns the nuke. At the time, our media work included a release of my health survey results. While the action, which included arrests and 22 hours in jail for my friends, garnered TV and radio coverage and big photos in the two major Houston newspapers, the health statistics went largely unreported.

However, in May of 1994 I bought a share of stock in Houston Industries, the parent company of Houston Lighting and Power (affectionately known as Looting and Plunder), and blind-sided them by showing up at their annual shareholder's meeting in our Radiation Ranger costume, rad suit with Stetson with antinuke symbol inside the Lone Star and a similar tinfoil sheriff-style badge, and conveying the grimmer health statistics to their surprised stockholders and the CEO, who for the last few years has been the highest-paid utility executive in the nation despite the lamentable overall record of the nuke in producing power and its exorbitant costs.

In 1995, Rodney Doerscher, a high school dropout and homeless advocate, intervened our small group, People Preventing a Texas Chernobyl, in a public utility commission (PUC) case brought by fired employees of HL&P, who are our political allies. We tried to insert the health survey as expert witness testimony but the judge ruled it as irrelevant. However, this was after it had been mailed to all the intervening parties and their high-dollar lawyers, including the city of Houston and corporate giants such as Dow. The case dealt with the fairness of charging rate-payers for the nuke the year it was closed by the NRC for numerous safety violations which had prompted a rare diagnostic evaluation by the regulators activists love to hate.

We had also initiated the STNP Volt Revolt, an appeal to Austin rate-payers to withhold the percentage of our electric bill that pays for the nuke (42% of our bill, which even when fully cranking, supplies only 26% of our power). The Austin American Statesman, our only daily, editorialized against us ("the next thing you know these people will advocate withholding taxes as a protest against wars" !) A few dozen of us participated, including the high profile head of Public Citizen Texas, and the current director of Texas Greenpeace.

An artist/activist named John Dolley designed a wonderful Volt Revolter T-shirt, and John and I held out for many months of threats to cut us off the grid, John by unplugging his fridge and reducing his electrical use to a single light bulb and a radio; I by installing compact fluorescents, giving away the hairdryer and toaster-oven, and eventually going solar after the city cut me off on Valentine's Day, eliciting a fine mini-documentary on a television station and a page one, with color photo, story in the University of Texas student newspaper.

In that story the reporter included the leukemia increase result to explain my motivation for the Revolt; subsequently, physics students attacked the student reporter and my partner and myself in letters to the editor as "publicity-seeking technophobes" (eh?) and for implying that nukes might be more dangerous to our health than solar electrical systems.

Another aspect of my initial research had provoked a state health department study of several cancer rates near the Pantex nuclear power plant which revealed increases in leukemia, thyroid and prostate incidence. Statistically significant increases in thyroid and prostate cancer were dismissed by the Registry as unrelated to Pantex; because thyroid increases were only in women, for example. Nonetheless, their study and my catalyst study were publicized by a reporter from the Fort Worth Star Telegram. A few months after the state survey was released, I saw an analysis of Los Alamos County health indices which revealed the same thyroid cancer increase in women only, then later noticed Dr. Rosalie Bertell's handbook for estimating cancer risks based on radiation exposure explicitly mentions that women are differentially vulnerable to this cancer.

Last spring, as I was refining the initial data base for my testimony to the P.U.C., I realized prostate cancer increases seemed to show up around a number of nuclear facilities in the US and the UK, so I added prostate cancer to my survey around the South Texas nuke. The results were the most dramatic increases I'd seen, though the numbers weren't large enough, given the relatively small populations of the counties covered and the few years of statistics available, for statistical significance. For instance, in the host county of Matagorda, prostate cancer deaths rose by 290% after the nuke came on line compared to a state increase during the same period of 26%. In the four nearest downwind counties, the increase was 73%—almost three times the statewide increase. For breast cancer mortality, the Matagorda County rate had jumped 59% and the three nearest downwind counties by 55%, compared to a state increase of 14%. In the four counties, babies born weighing less than 3 1/2 pounds rose 16%, compared to 6.5% statewide, giving statistical significance because of the numbers involved.

The point of all this is to show other activists that an ordinary citizen armed with a pencil, graph paper and calculator, or a fax-modem and computer spreadsheet, can get into the state cancer incidence and mortality databases, and perhaps birth defects, birth weight and infant mortality statistics, and run a couple of key tests to see if there is a health problem visible in the statistics, then to try to zero in on the cause.

...find one family whose doctor will testify that re-opening or continuing to operate a nuclear facility would be contra-indicated for the family health.

Since there was a time difference in the other logical causes (agricultural spraying and the petrochemical companies had all been in place for years before the nuke power plant, though not before Pantex ) I could make a before-and-after comparison to try to sort things out. With Pantex, I did something with cancer mortality statistics the state didn't do, whether on purpose or not. I added up leukemia deaths and all cancer deaths before the tritium accident in 1989 (40,000 curies released when workers dismantling missiles hit one with a tritium leak into the outer casing) in the host county, compared with the years after. Total cancer deaths more than doubled in the three years following the leak. In the six years prior there had been one leukemia death: in the three years following there were five. Small numbers, true, but dramatic.

The key factor in getting the state's attention was presenting the information to state officials (assistant attorney general, heads of divisions of state health and cancer registries, consumer/environmental advocate and ex-Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower) in the presence of the media and conference speaker-organizer Bella Abzug right after our well-publicized conference at the main University of Texas campus.

My failures lie in not following through on media snubs and state agency minimization of the survey results, for being too caught up in action. However, we scored a major hit this summer when a couple who contacted me after reading a summary in our Foundation newsletter of my research, held a press conference with us in our mobile anti-nuclear museum in the belly of the beast in Bay City, Texas, 10 miles from ST(N)P. The man, Enrique or Henry, had worked 7 years for the electrical division of the troubled plant; he had undergone two terrible surgeries for a very rare, radiation-linked abdominal cancer (rhabdomyosarcoma) at that point. He was 38 years old, Mexican-American, previously healthy with no family cancer history, and three young children. His story made the front page of the Bay City paper, and the company's usual facile rebuttal looked very weak.

This week I learned he is dead, but his wife, a health care provider who had begun a crash course of research on radiation effects after his diagnosis, has hired a lawyer and is pressing suit, armed with a doctor's death certificate which lists the cause of death as a radiation-caused tumor linked to his work at the nuke. Perhaps inadvertently I've accomplished what Rosalie Bertell advised us at our conference to do to shut nuclear facilities down: find one family whose doctor will testify that re-opening or continuing to operate a nuclear facility would be contra-indicated for the family health. In similar suits in California, the utilities hid behind the NRC standards; so she may have to sue the NRC as well, which brings in financial limitations. Nonetheless, it's a start, and perhaps Henry didn't die in vain.

I've passed my data sheet on to the epidemiologist at the state medical school who believes he can use it to get funding for a more intensive and official community health study. Meanwhile, I'll continue to publicize my results in our museum, in speeches to the Austin City Council and elsewhere, and in writing. The new factor for my work is the emergence of an Austin Green group which could systematically use the results of this work to push local government officials to "harder" actions than their past futile lawsuits and attempts to sell our share of the nuke (they turned down our $1 offer a year ago).

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