The shadow lingers

Ten years after lawsuit dismissed, debate continues on partial meltdown's health effects

Daily Record/Sunday News
York Daily Record/Sunday News


At bottom:  The health effect studies Scientists test teeth for TMI's effects

Jun 4, 2006 Ten years ago a judge ruled there was insufficient evidence to link radiation from the Three Mile Island accident to health problems in test cases of about 2,000 plaintiffs.

Yet some people who co-exist with the operating nuclear plant continue to question whether the partial meltdown on March 28, 1979, released radiation into the environment that has affected their health.

They live in the historical shadow of a plant that suffered a partial meltdown, the worst nuclear accident in United States history.

Today is the 10-year anniversary of U.S. District Judge Sylvia H. Rambo's ruling. The rest of the plaintiffs lost on appeal in 2002.

Nearly everything about the accident seems to be up for dispute, depending on who you ask, from how much radiation left the plant, to where it traveled, to what groups of people might have been affected, to what, if any, health effects have occurred or might occur in the future.

Even scientific studies seem to conflict. Some find links to health problems. Others do not. A new analysis notes more-than-expected cases of thyroid cancer in York and Lancaster counties over a period of years and pro- poses - but doesn't conclude - that it could be because of exposure to radiation from the accident.

For some, questions linger

Within a year of the accident, a German shepherd developed cataracts and a cat gave birth to a litter of deformed kittens, Debbie Baker said. The pets belonged to her mother, who lived about five miles from the plant.

In 1980, Baker gave birth to Bradley. As a 23-year-old Fairview Township mother with a son who had Down syndrome, Baker's thoughts turned to radiation exposure.

Before they evacuated, Baker had been taking her daughter to a babysitter in Goldsboro - not knowing she was pregnant with her second child.

Baker joined a class action lawsuit and wanted a day in court, but eventually accepted a monetary settlement. That settlement was accepted before the about 2,000 other plaintiffs brought suit, she said.

Today, at 49, in her Camp Hill home, Baker has a radiation monitor. It's never reached a level that would convince her to evacuate. She said she doesn't live in fear, but remains concerned about whether what happened that day affected her unborn child.

"It's always - like a wonder - you can't ever prove it," Baker said.

James E. Thomas, now 76, was one of the about 2,000 plaintiffs. Janet and James Thomas left their Foustown home the weekend of the accident to travel to the Appalachian Mountains for a square-dancing festival. With other dancers, they joked about glowing in the dark.

Then, James Thomas, who loved to be outside gardening, developed skin cancer.

When the lawsuit ended, the Thomases gave up.

"We just figured it was a lost cause and let it drop," Janet Thomas said.

Today, the couple lives in the same house.

For some, no worries

On a recent May day, the Susquehanna River sparkled blue. On Cly Road in Newberry Township sits a quaint house with a small sign advertising "FRESH BROWN EGGS."

Margaret Sipe, 55, and her husband have lived in the house with a view of the cooling towers for about two decades. She believes people have blown the accident out of proportion.

"I like it out here," Sipe said. "Not a lot of traffic, everyone gets along."

The area has filled in with more residential housing - about eight years ago, those places behind her house were cornfields, Sipe said.

The family has a friend who works at the nuclear power plant. There are no problems, don't worry, he has told them.

"It doesn't even cross our mind," Sipe said.

Up River Drive, the street rises with a steep hill. The tree farm lot provides a view of white puffs billowing out of the cooling towers.

Lester and Sue Haring own Haring Tree Farms.

The same year as the accident, but after it occurred, they started their Christmas tree farm on River Drive in Cly. They live nearby.

"The condition of the land is fine," Sue Haring said.

Lester Haring, 62, grows corn, tomatoes, onions, potatoes and other vegetables with his grandchildren. They sell some. His granddaughter, Lindsey Keiser, 5, is in charge of pumpkins - she's low to the ground, that's good for planting, he tells her.

Haring was not working at Three Mile Island the day of the accident, but he worked there for nine years building scaffolding inside the plant.

Builders were the first ones to enter areas where updates or repairs were needed because they created the structures electricians and others needed to stand on, he said.

Lester Haring said he believes nuclear plants are safe.

His wife, Sue, 61, has breast cancer. She's taken radiation and chemotherapy. She said she believes she inherited her disease; both her grandmother and two aunts had breast cancer.

"People have cancer all over the United States," Sue Haring said. "It's really hard to say did (the accident) do it."

Researchers debate: No link

Scientific studies on the Three Mile Island accident have different conclusions. Some people even interpret them differently.

By the time Columbia University investigators published their findings in 1990 that they saw no link between radiation and cancer cases, the lawsuit of about 2,000 plaintiffs was under way.

The state Department of Health also performed studies. None showed an increased risk of cancer related to the Three Mile Island accident, said Richard McGarvey, health department spokesman.

One health study showed a higher risk of low-birth weight babies in women who lived within a 10-mile-radius, but that was determined to be associated with a higher use of sedatives that appeared to be associated with the stress pregnant women were feeling, McGarvey said.

Until the mid-1980s, the state health department updated a registry of 35,000 people who lived within a 10-mile-radius of Three Mile Island, McGarvey said.

Another registry of women pregnant at the time of the accident and the children they bore was updated through the state fiscal year of 1994-95, he said. Nothing unusual was showing up in the database, so the registry was cut out of the budget, McGarvey said.

Detailed studies of radiological consequences of the Three Mile Island accident were done by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency, what is now the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the U.S. Department of Energy and Pennsylvania, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The average radiation dose to people living within 10 miles of the plant was 8 millirem, and any single person would have received less than 100 millirem, according to the American Nuclear Society.

Most people receive about 5 millirem per week from the environment. A chest X-ray exposes a person to about 6 millirem, according to the society.

Studies have shown that radiation's immediate effects are not observed until 35,000 millirem, said Brian Grimes, who retired from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1996 and is a spokesman for the nuclear society.

At 15,000 millirem, temporary sterility in humans is clinically testable, Grimes said.

Studies from Three Mile Island did not find any statistically significant increases in cancer cases, he said.

Attorney Alfred Wilcox of Pepper Hamilton LLP in Philadelphia represented the three power companies and their parent company, GPU, that the about 2,000 plaintiffs sued. Rambo's decision should give comfort to anyone concerned that the radiation adversely affected their health, Wilcox said.

The plaintiffs' case fell apart with their complicated theory that a blowout of radiation from the reactor avoided all of the detection monitors and huge doses hit pine and spruce trees and people, Wilcox said.

"We showed the judge, actually, those trees were affected by a tree fungus and parasite," he said.

He said there are more important subjects to spend research money on than whether the Three Mile Island accident had any health effects.

"The idea that somebody would do a better job of looking at that today is kind of silly," he said.

Others say the accident presents a unique opportunity for continued study.

Evelyn Talbott, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh, said that, even though exposures during the accident were low, the population should continue to be followed. That might be possible using the state health department's cancer registry, she said.

In one of her studies, a 20-year follow-up of mortality, published in 2003, Talbott used information from the state's registry for residents who lived within a five-mile radius of Three Mile Island, combined with the state's mortality data. The study found radioactivity released during the nuclear accident did not appear to have caused more cancer deaths in residents between 1979 and 1998, Talbott said.

It did find a hint of higher breast cancer rates, likely caused by gamma exposure in the days after the accident, but that trend appeared to weaken between the 1992 and 1998 study updates, she said.

Researchers debate: Possible link

Other researchers have found what they say are links between radiation released and cancer.

Steve Wing, who conducted a study on behalf of the about 2,000 plaintiffs, said his research improved upon the Columbia study, but produced different results.

Wing, associate professor in the epidemiology department at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, found as the estimated radiation dose increased, the cancer incidence increased after the accident, based on where plumes from the accident traveled.

His researchers looked at the difference between the pre-accident period, 1976 to 1979, compared to two sets of years post-accident, 1984 to 1985 and 1981 to 1985.

They found positive relationships between accident dose estimates and cancer rates for leukemia, lung cancer and all cancers combined.

"The criticisms were mainly that we weren't supposed to find that," he said.

Study data was available to nuclear industry scientists, and researchers had the opportunity to point out mistakes, but none did, he said.

When Rambo decided 10 years ago not to include some of the study data and then the plaintiffs' appeal lost, Wing said he was disappointed.

"I feel it was a disservice to the general public," he said. "It's a disservice to the history of this accident. ... Our interpretation of the results is that the doses were larger than what had been assumed."

In reviewing state Department of Health data, a Harrisburg-area doctor found more thyroid cancer cases than expected in York County for every year except one between 1990 and 2002.

Dr. Roger Levin, a head and neck surgeon who has experience treating thyroid cancer, said one reason for the higher incidence of thyroid cancer could be that people were exposed to radiation during the TMI accident.

The thyroid - a gland in the neck - controls the body's overall metabolism. It manages weight, pulse rate and body temperature.

Because the thyroid needs iodine to make its hormone, it's possible the gland could have taken in more radioactive iodine during the accident, Levin said. The gland cannot distinguish between radioactive iodine and the type found in table salt, which is why the state passes out non-radioactive iodine pills. In theory, people could take the pills during a nuclear accident to fill up the gland to protect it.

Addressing the increased cases in York and Lancaster counties, Levin said, radioactive material could have traveled to those counties by water, since it seems the wind was not blowing in that direction during the accident and days after.

When Levin started his research, he expected to see no difference in the number of thyroid cancer cases expected and the number reported in area counties.

Counties farther away than York and Lancaster from the accident showed no increasing trend.

"I sort of don't know what to do with the data except throw it out there and let (people) smarter than me debate it," Levin said.

Continuing to wonder

Donna James, 46, of West York said she believes the Three Mile Island accident caused her thyroid cancer. At the time, she was a student at Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania.

In January 2004, after three years of feeling tired and achy, James had a nodule removed from her neck. Her mother has thyroid problems, but not cancer, James said.

James said her cancer could have a connection to breathing the air after the accident or from the effects the radiation had on the environment.

"Especially because I used to eat a lot of organic foods," James said.

Her concerns and wonders have become part of the shadow Three Mile Island has left on the region.

Rep. Bruce Smith, R-Dillsburg, said people still talk to him about the accident. They tell him they believe there are higher cancer rates in the area because of it, he said.

"There is no doubt in my mind the (health department's) studies were flawed," Smith said.

At the time of the accident, Smith was chairman of the board in Newberry Township, the largest municipality on the West Shore within a 5-mile radius of the plant.

His children stood outside at the bus stop that morning. After the accident, his wife, Patricia Smith, became active in the fight to make sure the plant was safe. When one unit re-opened in 1985, the Smiths moved to Dillsburg.

They placed 22 miles between their home and the reactors. No longer could they see the cooling towers from their home.

"(The tower) was too much of a reminder of the accident and mental turmoil and frustration my wife went through at the time of the accident," Smith said.

When asked to comment about the 25th anniversary in 2004, a FirstEnergy spokesman said that, since the 1979 partial meltdown, the Unit 2 reactor has been in a state of long-term monitored storage.

GPU workers removed 300,000 pounds of core material from TMI Unit 2 before the project was completed in December 1993.

A FirstEnergy spokesman said last week the company could not comment on possible health effects because it did not own TMI Unit 2 at the time of the accident.

For some, the plant is part of the scenery. For others, it's a symbol of hidden effects of a past event and clues to why certain people got sick.

Eric Epstein of Three Mile Island Alert Inc., an activist group formed before the 1979 accident, said he believes people affected by the radiation will get a day in court, even if it's decades from now. Epstein is convinced that the accident has led to adverse health effects in the area, but he still lives there.

It's a great place to live, he said. "There is nowhere you can go where there is not an environmental threat," Epstein said.

They monitor the radiation and watch.

"People will question the health effects of TMI for at least a generation," he said.

Reach Jennifer Nejman at 771-2026 or

The health effect studies

The following studies deal with Three Mile Island:

Steve Wing, associate professor, epidemiology department, UNC, Chapel Hill

The study was conducted on behalf of the about 2,000 plaintiffs who claimed emissions of radioactive gases during the Three Mile Island accident were much larger than the industry and government stated and that intense plumes had exposed small areas to high radiation doses, resulting in adverse health effects, including cancer.

Findings: Wing's research found positive relationships between accident dose estimates and cancer rates for leukemia, lung cancer and all cancers combined. The study looked at the difference between the pre-accident period, 1976 to 1979, compared with two sets of years post-accident, 1984 to 1985, and 1981 to 1985.

Estimates for radiation effects were larger for cancers that occurred in 1984 to 1985 than for cancers that occurred in 1981 to 1985, an observation consistent with there being more time for cancers to develop after exposure. Those estimates were larger when statistical adjustments were made for differences in socioeconomic status between areas of low and high dose.

Evelyn Talbott, professor of epidemiology, University of Pittsburgh, Graduate School of Public Health

Talbott's 2003 study was a 20-year follow-up of mortality data on residents who lived within a 5-mile radius of Three Mile Island. She used data collected by the state Department of Health in interviews conducted with 32,135 residents within two months of the accident. The exposure data was combined with mortality data from the state.

Finding:The study found overall cancer deaths in the local population were similar to cancer death rates statewide. Radioactivity released during the nuclear accident does not appear to have caused more cancer deaths in residents between 1979 and 1998, she said.

However, with regard to specific cancer sites, the risk of cancers of the hematopoietic blood system, such as leukemias and lymphomas, were greater for naturally occurring radiation, called background radiation, that comes from the earth's crust.

There is an area around Three Mile Island that has this higher background radiation and should be considered for further study, Talbott said. The area is known as the Reading Prong and it occurs in southeastern Pennsylvania in the southern parts of Lebanon, Berks, Lehigh and Northampton counties. Talbott cautioned that more work should be done before conclusions can be made about this area.

Talbott's study found a hint of higher breast cancer rates, likely caused by gamma exposure the days after the accident, but this trend appeared to weaken between the 1992 and 1998 study updates.

Dr. Roger Levin,chief division of otolaryngology/head and neck surgery, PinnacleHealth System in Harrisburg, and clinical associate professor of surgery, Penn State College of Medicine

Levin did his research so he could join The Triological Society, a society for ear, nose and throat specialists and head and neck surgeons. His paper is scheduled to be published in the society's peer-reviewed journal, The Laryngoscope, in an upcoming month.

Findings: In reviewing state health data, Levin found more thyroid cancer cases than expected in York County for every year except one between 1995 and 2002.

One plausible reason could be people were exposed to radiation during the 1979 Three Mile Island accident, he said.

During the accident, the thyroid gland could have taken in radioactive iodine or people could have brought increased levels into their systems through food grown in the area or other environmental factors, he said.

Levin said two factors that could have made a link to the Three Mile Island accident more convincing did not occur: the winds were blowing northwest, not toward York County, and there was no increase in thyroid cancer in populations younger than 20 years old.

However, he said he found in his readings that a small amount of radiation was vented into the Susquehanna River in the form of wastewater from parts of the plant that were not part of the cooling systems, such as toilets, showers and laundry facilities.

And children and expectant mothers were evacuated in the days following the accident, Levin said.

Thyroid cancer is increasing in the United States. Some say it's due to better diagnosis; others attribute exposure to radiation, Levin said.


Scientists test teeth for TMI's effects

Pa. group looks for radioactive chemicals from nuclear sites

Joseph Mangano wants your baby teeth.

Not for the same sentimental reasons parents safeguard their children's teeth as childhood keepsakes, but rather to try to prove what he believes are the dangers of living close to a nuclear reactor.

Since 1998, the Radiation and Public Health Project in Norristown has collected more than 5,000 teeth from people who live close to one of the eight U.S. nuclear sites, and from people who don't live near the sites, Mangano said.

In November, the Radiation and Public Health Project added Three Mile Island in Dauphin County to its list of nuclear sites and started to collect teeth from nearby residents, he said.

Mangano is the national coordinator for the Radiation and Public Health Project.

Through the project, several dozen teeth have been collected from people who live near TMI. The teeth will be tested for levels of Strontium-90, a radioactive chemical found in the waste of nuclear reactors that has been linked to bone cancer, cancer of the soft tissue near the bone and leukemia.

Strontium-90 may also contaminate reactor parts and fluids, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

A decade has passed since U.S. Middle District Chief Judge Sylvia Rambo dismissed 2,100 cases filed by people who claimed their health problems could be traced back to the partial meltdown of TMI Unit 2 on March 28, 1979.

"To me," Mangano said, "the health effects (related to the partial meltdown) are almost as big as the story of the accident itself."

On that day, mechanical failure and human oversight led to what is considered the worst commercial nuclear accident in American history.

As a result of the partial meltdown, people who lived near the plant at the time of the accident were exposed to a small amount of radioactive material.

The goal of Mangano's group is to collect baby teeth from before and after the TMI Unit 2 accident to test for the Strontium-90 levels.

Launched in 1985 by founders Jay Gould and Ernest Sternglass, the project's goals, according to Mangano, are:

To account for any health risks posed by nuclear reactors.

To point out any resistance by government officials to fully disclose the health effects of nuclear power.

Mangano, 50, has a master's degree in public health, with a focus on disease prevention, from the University of North Carolina.

He joined the Radiation and Public Health Project in 1989.

"I had a desire to contribute to preventive health," he said. "Especially since our health system is so strongly focused on disease diagnosis and treatment, and not on prevention."

Mangano regularly attends public hearings concerning nuclear power plants, including Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station, to raise public awareness about the health effects of nuclear reactors.

The collection of teeth by the project is one way to alert the public to any health risks posed by nuclear sites, Mangano said.

Aside from the area around TMI, the project has collected teeth from Indian Point in New York, Oyster Creek in New Jersey, Limerick in Pennsylvania, Saint Lucie in Florida, Turkey Point in Florida, Diablo Canyon in California and Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York.

Roughly 80 percent of the teeth collected came from people who live close to one of those sites.

By testing baby teeth, researchers with the project have found that people who live close to nuclear sites have ingested high amounts of Strontium-90.

Children who live in counties closest to nuclear reactors have an average level of Strontium-90 in their teeth that is 30 to 50 percent higher than children tested in more distant counties.

While some people may inhale trace amounts of Strontium-90 as dust, the most common pathway would be for residents to swallow the chemical via food and water.

Strontium-90 is a byproduct found in the fission of uranium. During the 1950s and 1960s, large amounts of Strontium-90 were produced during atmospheric nuclear weapons tests and dispersed worldwide, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Between 1998 and 2003, the Radiation and Public Health Project received 106 baby teeth from children with cancer. The group tested the teeth for Strontium-90.

Since some of those teeth were very small or decayed, leaving little intact enamel for testing, accurate test results were available for little more than half of the samples.

Test results showed that the 54 teeth had an average Strontium-90 concentration about 60 percent higher than teeth from children without cancer.

By the end of the year, Mangano's group plans to announce its test results regarding baby teeth taken from residents who live close to TMI.

"We will take any baby teeth from anybody, but most of the teeth we are collecting come from now," he said. "We would like to get more teeth from people who were born before the accident so we can compare."

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