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LETTER: A link between cancer rates and nuclear plants? via The Mercury

Since the two nuclear reactors at Limerick began operating in the 1980s, the question of whether toxic radiation releases affected local cancer rates has persisted.

The latest official statistics raise a red flag: among children and young adults, who are more vulnerable to radiation, cancer rates are rising — especially cancers of the thyroid, which is most sensitive to radiation.

A disastrous meltdown, like those at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, has always been possible at Limerick. But toxic radioactivity routinely generated is steadily released into local air and water. People living nearby drink, eat and breathe these chemicals on a daily basis.

A study from the early 2000s found high average levels of Strontium-90 in over 100 local baby teeth. This chemical, only created in atomic bomb explosions and nuclear reactor operations, is deposited in bone and teeth. Levels in teeth of children living near Limerick were 50 percent higher than in areas far from nuclear plants; and those results were published in medical journal articles.

The childhood cancer rate in the Pottstown area was 93 percent above the rest of the region in the late 1990s and early 2000s. While multiple factors can cause children to develop cancer, public health officials failed to document any.

Now that the Limerick nuclear reactors are aging, their parts are corroding and more likely to routinely leak radiation. A review of current local cancer rates in young people is in order.

In the most recent four-year period (2011-2014), a total of 430 cancer cases were diagnosed in Montgomery County residents under age 30, a jump from the 338 cases in the four years prior. The rate increase of 27 percent was significantly larger than the 5 percent rise for the rest of Pennsylvania.

Thyroid cancer is probably the most radiosensitive of all cancers. High rates of this cancer have been found in survivors of the atom bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki; Baby Boomers exposed to above-ground bomb test fallout in the 1950s and 1960s; persons living near Chernobyl during the 1986 meltdown; and children living near Fukushima after the 2011 meltdown.

The reason thyroid cancer is sensitive to radiation? Another of the 100-plus chemicals released from reactors is iodine-131 (I-131), tiny radioactive metal particles that seek out the thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland in the neck. I-131 kills or damages healthy cells, which can lead to cancer. Since 1991, U.S. thyroid cancer cases diagnosed annually soared from 12,000 to 64,000.

New thyroid cancer cases in persons under 30-years-old rose from 40 to 79 in Montgomery County during the most recent two four-year periods, a 97 percent increase. The increase for the rest of Pennsylvania is just 9 percent. The county rate is well above the state.

Thyroid cancer is not caused by working in coal mines. It is not caused by smoking. It is not caused by drinking alcohol. It is not caused by eating processed foods. The Mayo Clinic lists just three risk factors for the disease; being female (not a cause); inherited defective genes (not a cause); and radiation exposure — the only known cause.

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