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Two Studies Find Leukemia Among People Living Near Nuclear Plants

February 6, 1988

WASHINGTON (AP) _ When a British study found that an unusual number of children who lived near nuclear plants were dying of leukemia, scientists at the National Institutes of Health quickly organized a massive cancer study of Americans with homes near such facilities.

Dr. John Boice, a National Cancer Institute scientist, said the British research was the second such study to detect unusual levels of cancer near nuclear plants. An earlier study found elevated leukemia rates among adults near the Pilgrim nuclear power plant in Plymouth, Mass.

The British study, which was concluded last summer, reported that children and young adults up to the age of 20 who lived near any nuclear facility were experiencing higher than normal rates of leukemia, Boice said. That prompted him to organize a team to study the cancer rates around each one of the more than 100 U.S. nuclear power plants.

″The only reason we’re doing the study is to follow up on the English study,″ Boice said Friday in a telephone interview.

He said young people under the age of 20 ″are the most sensitive to radiation″ and are also the people who spend the most time near their homes.

″In the English study, they had childhood leukemia that seemed to be associated with being near nuclear installations,″ said Boice. ″Not just power plants, but all installations. If that (finding) occurs in the United States, we’ll have to move to determine the cause.″

Dr. James Wyngaarden, head of the NIH, said in a letter released Thursday that the agency also was concerned about ″descriptive studies of leukemia clusters″ found among populations living near the Pilgrim nuclear power plant in Plymouth, Mass.

Dr. Tito Cascieri, director of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health unit that conducted the Pilgrim study from 1982 to 1984, said researchers found elevated leukemia rates that were ″statistically significant.″

He said a survey of five towns around the Pilgrim plant uncovered 31 cases of leukemia among men and 21 among women. The male findings were 71 percent above the expected rate, and the female total was 38 percent above the expected rate.

Boice, who works for the National Cancer Institute, a part of the NIH, said the national study will be conducted in phases, starting with a statistical analysis that is already under way.

He said cancer mortality data from all counties near nuclear power plants will be taken from NCI files dating back to 1950.

″Then we would try to link occurences that looked peculiar with the amount of radiation that had been released″ from the plants, he said.

Next, he said, the group will attempt to adjust the findings based on other factors known to affect cancer incidence, such as the proximity of chemical plants, Boice said.

The final step of the study will be to send teams to interview people and determine if still other factors, such as occupational cancer risks, could have affected the statistical findings.

″We are not real clear at this low level (of radiation) what the risks might be,″ he said. ″At this time there is very little evidence that there would be″ an increased risk from living near nuclear plants.

The U.S. nuclear plant cancer study became known on Thursday when Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., released Wyngaarden’s letter.

Wyngaarden said in the Jan. 28 letter that in addition to the nuclear power plant studies, the NIH also was studying the effects of atmospheric atomic weapons tests in the 1950s and 1960s on residents who lived downwind from the Nevada atomic test site.

Boice, who is chief of the NCI’s radiation epidemiology branch, said the bomb test study was being conducted by the University of Utah and should be completed this year.

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