I came across this article rather alarming headline today. I figure it deserves some attention. So here goes.
In the late 1970s, the rate of new thyroid cancer cases in four counties just north of New York City—Westchester, Rockland, Orange and Putnam counties—was 22 percent below the U.S. rate.
First off, some graphic representation. Since I and most others are likely unfamiliar with the layout of New York State.
Above is a map of NY counties and districts (click to enlarge if necessary). You can see the 5 boroughs of New York City at the very bottom of the map (in pink). The 4 counties noted are just above on the mainland (the lower part of the red section).
The following is a map of where Indian Point is in relation to these counties (and New York City). The source bias is blatantly apparent, but none the less, it does the trick.
In the past (around 2011 to be precise) I had worried about this plant and its proximity to one of the biggest cities in the world. For an obvious reason (the worlds worst nuclear accident following Chernobyl had just occurred). But it’s been awhile since it’s been on my radar.
However, looks like it won’t be an issue (well, at least a continually operational issue) for much longer. More on that later.
Today, it has soared to 53 percent above the national rate. New cases jumped from 51 to 412 per year. Large increases in thyroid cancer occurred for both males and females in each county.
That’s according to a new study I co-authored which was published in the Journal of Environmental Protection and presented at Columbia University.
This change may be a result of airborne emissions of radioactive iodine from the Indian Point nuclear power plant, which is located at the crossroads of those four counties and has been operating since the mid-’70s.
Exposure to radioactivity is the only known cause of thyroid cancer. Indian Point routinely releases more than 100 radioactive chemicals into the environment. These chemicals enter human bodies through breathing and the food chain, harming and killing healthy cells. One of these chemicals is radioactive iodine, which attacks and kills cells in the thyroid gland, raising the risk of cancer.
The first thing I was curious about was wind patterns in New York State. I got some prevailing wind information from a National Centers For Environmental Information PDF outlining the climate of New York in detail. The PDF can be found HERE, on page 7.
The prevailing wind is generally from the west in New York State. A southwest componentbecomes evident in winds during the warmermonths while a northwest component ischaracteristic of the colder half of the year.Occasionally, well-developed storm systems movingacross the continent or along the Atlantic coast are accompanied by very strong winds, whichcause considerable property damage over wide areas of the State. A unique effect of strongcyclonic winds from the southwest is the riseof water to abnormally high levels at thenortheastern end of Lake Erie.
This information seemed important since it should give us a general idea of where any released radioactive particles are likely to end up. Though 2 of the counties seem to match up, the 2 westernmost counties (Orange and Putnam) seem like outliers, being UPWIND for the majority of the time. Of course, I am not a climatologist. There may be other factors at work that I am not considering.
One thing that does occur to me, however, is that radioactive fallout releases have a tendency of traveling LONG distances from their point of origin. Chernobyl was famously discovered when workers at a Sweedish Nuclear plant were found to be bringing radioactive contamination INTO the plant from outside.
And even this year, something similar happened (with many also suspecting the origin being somewhere in Russia or Kazakstan). Either would make perfect sense, being that:
1.) It’s Russia.
If they accidentally created a black hole that slowly swallowed the world, we wouldn’t find out until large portions of their nation and population start mysteriously vanishing into the abyss
2.) Kazakstan (among other former Soviet satellite states) holds a lot of the legacy technology from that Era. Not to mention that I wouldn’t be surprised if Big Red still has a lot of influence over affairs. Particularly these days, with the west being increasingly undermined by its own shortcomings.
Either way, to bring it back, these releases tend to go a long way. Given the typical wind patterns, I would suspect releases (and thus, cancer rates) would not just be picked up in neighboring counties, but also in New York City, New Jersey, Long Island, and other downwind sections of the NY tristate area.
While again just speculation, I think it is built on a solid foundation of past anecdotes and incidents.
I next want to focus on one sentence of the article that sticks out.
Exposure to radioactivity is the only known cause of thyroid cancer
This one has to be highlighted because it is somewhat disingenuous.
While most sources outline symptoms and causes (explanations of the medical jargon), few give much insight into what could be driving those changes. Possibly because so little is known (it’s better not to speculate). Web MD has this to say.
Experts don’t know what causes thyroid cancer. But like other cancers, changes in the DNA of your cells seem to play a role. These DNA changes may include changes that are inherited as well as those that happen as you get older.
A dental X-ray now and then will not increase your chance of getting thyroid cancer. But past radiation treatment of your head, neck, or chest (especially during childhood) can put you at risk of getting thyroid cancer.
The Mayo Clinic explanation seems more or less in agreement.
Factors that may increase the risk of thyroid cancer include:
- Female sex. Thyroid cancer occurs more often in women than in men.
- Exposure to high levels of radiation. Examples of exposure to high levels of radiation include radiation treatments to the head and neck and fallout from sources such as nuclear power plant accidents or weapons testing.
- Certain inherited genetic syndromes. Genetic syndromes that increase the risk of thyroid cancer include familial medullary thyroid cancer and multiple endocrine neoplasia.
Also in the explanation from the Mayo clinic is this.
Although thyroid cancer isn’t common in the United States, rates seem to be increasing. Doctors think this is because new technology is allowing them to find small thyroid cancers that may not have been found in the past.
Maybe a factor in the overall picture? I guess we will see.
Let’s bring it back to upstate New York and the 4 counties in question. The Ecowatch article is based on a study (co-founded by the author of the article) that claims an increase in cancer cases both above background and taking the rising national average into consideration. Here is the abstract of the study itself:
Thyroid cancer incidence has risen steadily in the US for several decades. While any cause of this trend has yet to be clearly identified, most analyses have concluded that there are factors other than improved detection accounting for the increase. Since exposure to radioactive iodine is the only acknowledged root cause of thyroid cancer, a review of temporal trends in incidence since the late 1970s near the Indian Point nuclear power plant, just 23 miles from the New York City border, was conducted. Rates in the four counties closest to Indian Point, where virtually the entire population resides within 20 miles of the plant, were compared with national trends in the US. The relative ratio in the local area was 0.778 in the period 1976-1981, or 22.2 percent lower than the national rate. This ratio increased steadily, to 1.579 (57.9 percent greater than the US) by the period 2000-2004, which slightly declined to 1.515 (51.5 percent greater) in the latest period available (2010-2014). Significant increases occurred for both males and females, and in each of the four counties. Annual new cases diagnosed among residents of the four counties increased from 51 to 412 between 1976-1981 and 2010-2014. Because the two large reactors at Indian Point began operations in 1973 and 1976, and exposures to radioiodine isotopes can manifest as cancer from five years to several decades after exposure, iodine emissions from Indian Point emissions should be considered as a potential factor in these trends. More studies near Indian Point and other nuclear installations should be conducted to further explore this potential association.
One thing that comes to mind is how the numbers compare to cancer in populations around other nuclear plants.
According to this paper (see page 26), many studies of this type of risk have been done in many countries involving many different types of population density and types of nuclear facilities, with all of them coming back with many different conclusions. Some found positive correlations to being in proximity to said facilities, though none were ever linked directly to the facilities. I am not surprised by this since the cancer variant is so misunderstood, to begin with.
Another interesting set of statistics to consider (also from the paper cited previously):
- Approximately 1 million people lived within 5 miles of operating nuclear plants in 2010; over 45 million people lived within 30 miles.
- Approximately 116,000 people lived within 5 miles of USNRC-licensed operating fuel-cycle facilities in 2010; over 2 million people lived within 30 miles.
- Approximately 210 people lived within 5 miles of a USNRC-licensed operating in situ recovery or conventional uranium mill recovery facility in 2010; about 11,000 lived within 30 miles.
Millions live within a stone’s throw of such facilities. Do you?
That is just generalized stats. Maybe there is something wrong with this plant itself which would make it an outlier of sorts.
It looks like the plant does indeed have a bit of a troubled history, particularly since 2012.
The plant has had 40 “safety events”, “operational events”, and shutdowns since 2012. The shutdowns have exposed apparent fragility in the nuclear facility’s workings: in December 2015 the plant was shut down for three days after droppings from a “large bird” caused an arc between power lines and a transmission tower. In April 2016, Entergy admitted it had found that bolts holding together the interior of one of Indian Point’s reactors were damaged and, in some cases, missing.
Ah, humans. If greed isn’t what gets us, then it will be laziness. Also worth noting was some drama over the possibility of running natural gas lines on land very close to the facility.
Entergy also came under fire in 2016 after the Guardian published a safety assessment of proposed natural gas pipelines to be built by energy pipeline company Spectra on Indian Point property. The assessment, provided to the Guardian by engineer Paul Blanch and obtained through a freedom of information act (Foia), was partly hand-drawn and did not adequately account for the damage to the plant that could result from a breach of the lines.
One would think we would have been beyond such oversights with Fukushima in our rearview. But then again . . . humans.
The last part, however, brings to mind another possibility. Maybe the days of nuclear (like the days of this plant’s operations) are numbered.
Nuclear has always been a nemesis, but Fukushima certainly didn’t do the industry any favors. Though the plant does not seem to have any major infractions associated with it, just having such a facility so close to so much population is problematic on its own, even without the operational history. I suspect a combination of the increasing costs of running such a facility (particularly in the face of cheaper alternatives like natural gas and renewables) and bad public image of both the plant and nuclear energy in general as the deciding factors here. Having uncontrolled releases into groundwater sources nearby certainly didn’t help things either.
Either way, I wandered somewhat from the outset of this piece. That said, there is not much more to say on the topic. Did the plant result in a spike in the cancer rates in close proximity?
I don’t know. However, correlation does not necessarily mean causation. Though the authors of the study (and the article) claim legitimacy, I can’t help but question the bias. I will not disagree, however, that more studies can’t hurt. The more information that is available, the better off everyone is.
In conclusion, overall, I am not a big fan of nuclear energy.
In its favor, it is carbon neutral (or very close, anyhow). And it may function as a good stepping stone between the age of fossil fuels and renewables (since uranium is also finite).
That being said, it could also be seen as insanity, being the risk involved. Indeed, meltdowns and accidents are fairly few and far between. But we still have not figured out a permanent solution to radioactive wastes that will long outlive our civilizations.
Fortunately, the fact that these things are prohibitively expensive to build and operate will deter many new installations. But those that do should consider the consequences.
Imagine a world with half the overall population (say a pandemic wiped us out), but the same number of nuclear facilities to oversee. Without constant inputs and attention, spent fuel ponds run the risk of going dry and dumping massive amounts of radioactivity into the enviroment.
Not something I considered during my freakout in 2010, or even 2011 (when the nuclear industry had the world on edge). Though possibly a good thing.
I may not have ever slept again.