Nov. 29, 2019
When Dr. Janette Sherman was practicing internal medicine in suburban Detroit in the 1970s, she noticed that several of her patients were reporting similar symptoms, and that they all worked in automobile factories.
She soon realized that they were all being exposed to the same hazardous chemicals, including arsenic. She shared her findings with the consumer activist Ralph Nader’s Health Research Group, and in 1973 they issued a report on the health of 489 Detroit autoworkers.
She also studied the continuing health effects of the world’s worst nuclear disasters, in 1986 at the Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine and in 2011 at the Fukushima plant in Japan.
Her work often pitted her against powerful business and political interests.
“She definitely went up against the corporate establishment,” Ms. Bigelow, her daughter, said. “She was always on the side of the worker.”
Sometimes she was “threatened and hassled,” Ms. Bigelow said. “She talked about being in hotel rooms with attorneys, and they’d turn on the TV and the radio and the shower because they were afraid they were being bugged.”
Ms. Bigelow said that her mother, as a woman in what was largely a man’s field, felt she had no room for error.
“She did very careful, very detailed research,” she said. “I suspect there were some doctors who shunned her because of her work, but she didn’t care. She did what she thought was right.”
She wrote two books, “Chemical Exposure and Disease: Diagnostic and Investigative Techniques” (1988) and “Life’s Delicate Balance: Causes and Prevention of Breast Cancer” (2000).
She also edited “Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment” (2007), which analyzed thousands of articles in the scientific literature and concluded that the Chernobyl disaster had caused an estimated 985,000 premature deaths. That number far exceeded previous estimates, the highest of which was about 50,000, and led to criticism of the book in the academic press.
Dr. Sherman had studied the effects of radiation early in her career and later worked with Joseph Mangano, executive director of the nonprofit Radiation and Public Health Project. By analyzing the baby teeth of children who lived near nuclear reactors, they suggested in five peer-reviewed journal articles that even small doses of radiation had caused increases in childhood cancer. Some scientists were skeptical, saying no direct link could be proved.
“We were alone in doing the research but not alone in our concern that radiation from nuclear reactors is getting into people’s bodies and harming them,” Mr. Mangano said.