Thursday, March 19, 1998
Fernald will cause
85 cancer deaths

Risk study projects illnesses

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Death rates within 10K of Fernald

HARRISON - About 85 people are expected to die from lung cancer because they lived near the Fernald uranium-processing plant during its 38 years of production, a federal health report estimated Wednesday.

Results from the Fernald Risk Assessment Project, conducted by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), were released at an evening press conference in Harrison.

Neighbors have wondered for decades about the health risks caused by pollution from the giant uranium works, which closed in 1989 to become Greater Cincinnati's biggest environmental cleanup project.

Now they are finally getting some answers - some of the first solid data on health effects ever provided for any part of America's nuclear-weapons complex. Yet, experts warned that even this study does not provide all the answers.

''These estimates were derived using the best science we have. But they are estimates. They are not counts,'' said Dr. Owen Devine, chief of the CDC's risk-assessment division.

The study estimated lung cancer deaths based on an estimated 40,000 to 53,000 people who lived within 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) of the plant from 1951 to 1988. The study also includes expected deaths up to the year 2088.

The study looked only at lung cancer deaths, because that's the primary result of radon gas exposure, which previous studies have determined to be the biggest health threat from the plant. Among the findings:

  • Fernald caused an estimated 85 lung cancer deaths above the 2,601 deaths that would be expected for the population that lived within 10 kilometers of the site. That's a median estimate; the studies estimate that deaths attributable to Fernald could range from 25 to 309.

    Fernald announcement
    Dr. Owen Devine from the CDC explains the methodology of their study.
    (Michael Snyder photo)
    | ZOOM |

  • People who lived closer to the plant had higher death rates, especially if they lived downwind. People who lived immediately southeast of the plant had a 12 percent higher than normal lung cancer death rate, while people living close to the northwest fence line had a 3 percent increased death rate.

  • People who smoked were more likely to suffer, with 65 of the 85 projected deaths among smokers.

  • Males were more likely to die of Fernald-related lung cancer than females, with 49 estimated male deaths and 36 estimated female deaths. The reason: Historically, male smoking rates were higher than female rates.

  • Slightly more than half of the people who will die from Fernald-related lung cancer already have died. An estimated 39 of the 85 deaths will occur between 2000 and 2088.

    ''As you know, we've been very closely monitoring the situation at Fernald,'' said a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Rob Portman, R-Cincinnati. ''He's extremely disturbed by the information he received today.''

    U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Cincinnati, asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to expand its study to include neighboring communities previously excluded.

    ''The draft report demonstrates that there are serious health risks associated with the release of radioactive material from Fernald,'' he said. ''The CDC and other government agencies must work closely with the community to address the issues raised in this report.''

    Study authors emphasized this is not an actual count of people who got cancer. Instead, it is an estimate based on a mathematical model that links historical population data with detailed estimates of radiation exposure.

    Essentially, experts now have their best estimate of how much pollution came from Fernald. They also studied how many people lived near the plant during its production years. From that they calculated an estimated dose of cancer-causing radon. And from that, an estimate of how many people probably got or will get lung cancer.

    ''I think this certainly gives a good picture of the impact (of Fernald) on the entire community,'' said Dr. Joseph Farrell, chairman of the Fernald Health Effects Subcommittee.

    Fernald announcement
    Dr. James Smith from the CDC gives a quick overview of their findings.
    (Michael Snyder photo)
    | ZOOM |
    Construction at Fernald began in 1951 with full-scale production starting in 1953. The plant closed in 1989.

    Over the years, the plant released thousands of tons of uranium dust into the air, soil and water. But experts reported that the most serious health threat from the plant actually comes from radioactive waste still stored at the Fernald's K-65 silos. Those silos contain 20 million pounds of radium-laced sludge that for many years emitted radon gas directly into the airstream through open vents in the storage tanks. Those vents were capped in 1979.

    In fact, continued monitoring has shown that radon gas no longer escapes the plant in measurable amounts. That means the risk of cancer for people who moved to the area after 1979 has been dramatically reduced, Dr. Devine said.

    There are several things the report doesn't say. For example:

  • It cannot confirm or predict which individuals died of lung cancer because of Fernald vs. other causes, such as smoking.

  • The assessment does not address risks to workers, who got doses of radon on the job.

  • It misses as many as 8 percent of lung-cancer deaths that were not recorded as such on death certificates. It also will miss residents who died after moving away.

  • It does not address kidney cancer, bone cancer, infertility, miscarriages, birth defects and other problems that have worried neighbors.

  • It does not address the health risks posed by large amounts of non-radioactive toxic chemicals that were used at the plant.

    Wednesday's study was a draft report. ''We are looking for community and scientific comment on this,'' Dr. Devine said.

    In terms of public health, nothing can be done to eliminate the health risks posed by the Fernald exposure, said Dr. Susan Penney, a lung cancer expert and member of the health effects subcommittee. The good news is that new radon exposure from Fernald has stopped.

  • Longtime Fernald neighbors can reduce their odds of developing lung cancer by avoiding other known lung cancer risks, she said, by quitting smoking or having their homes tested for indoor radon gas.

    Residents still have questions
    Death rates within 10K of Fernald
    A Fernald health chronology