by Radiation and Public Health Project
New York – The rate of new thyroid cancer cases in the four counties just north of New York City, which was 22 percent below the U.S. rate in the late 1970s, has soared to 53 percent above the U.S. rate. New cases jumped from 51 to 412 per year, according to a new article in the Journal of Environmental Protection, presented Dec. 4 at Columbia University.
This change may be a result of airborne emissions of radioactive iodine from the two Indian Point nuclear power reactors, at the crossroads of Westchester, Rockland, Orange and Putnam counties, and operating since the mid-1970s. Large increases occurred for both men and women in each county.
“The only known cause of thyroid cancer is exposure to radioactivity,” said Joseph Mangano, MPH, MBA, executive director of the Radiation and Public Health Project and study co-author. “Indian Point routinely releases over 100 radioactive chemicals, the same as in atomic bombs, into the environment. One of these is iodine, which attacks and kills cells in the thyroid gland, raising the risk of cancer,” he explains, adding the study calls for much more research on thyroid cancer patterns.
According to the New York State cancer registry, the 1976-1981 four-county thyroid cancer rate was 22 percent below the U.S. Thyroid cancer has increased across the U.S., but the local increase was much greater. From 2000-2014, the local rate was 53 percent above the U.S., a statistically significant rise.
“I am concerned that radiation may have contributed to thyroid cancer in my family,” says Joanne DeVito, who also spoke at the event. She was diagnosed with the condition, as have each of her three daughters. “Our family has no history of thyroid disease, and doctors are at a loss to explain why this happened,” said DeVito, who now lives in Connecticut, but lived for many years close to Indian Point.
“After Fukushima, it finally occurred to me that my thyroid cancer was connected to Indian Point,” said Peter Schwartz, a Rockland County businessman diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 1986. “The statistical aberration of increased cancer rates should be a concern to us all.”
Reactors like those at Indian Point create electricity by splitting uranium atoms, the same process used to detonate nuclear weapons. During the process, over 100 radioactive chemicals, including radioactive iodine, are formed. Much of this waste is contained in reactors, some is released into the environment, and enters human bodies through breathing and the food chain, harming and killing healthy cells.
Earlier studies found high rates of thyroid cancer in those treated with head and neck irradiation (ceased in the 1950s), survivors of the 1945 Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs, and the 1986 Chernobyl and 2011 Fukushima reactor meltdowns. A 1999 National Cancer Institute study concluded that as many as 212,000 Americans developed thyroid cancer from the above-ground nuclear weapons tests in Nevada, banned in a 1963 treaty but considered low dose exposures.
Little is known about thyroid cancer causes. Risk factors from the Mayo Clinic include being female, genetic syndromes and exposure to ionizing radiation. From 1980 to 2014, the U.S. thyroid cancer incidence rate more than tripled for all ages, races and genders. Most scientific articles in the professional literature concluded that improved diagnosis cannot be the sole reason.
In a recent study in the journal Laryngoscope, researchers at Hershey Medical Center found local residents near the Three Mile Island plant diagnosed with thyroid cancer after the 1979 partial meltdown had a significantly lower proportion of the BRAFV600 Emutation, which is not associated with radiation-induced thyroid cancer, compared to cases diagnosed before and many years after the accident. Authors suggest the meltdown could have contributed to the disease.
The Indian Point reactors, located in Buchanan, N.Y., in northwest Westchester County, began operating in 1973 and 1976. An agreement to close the plant by 2021 between Entergy (which owns and operates the plant) and New York State was reached in January of this year.
The Radiation and Public Health Project is a research and education group of scientists and citizens, who have published 37 scientific journal articles and written eight books on the topic of health hazards of nuclear reactor emissions. Information on the group is available at www.radiation.org.