The Nuke Next Door

Raised on fresh fruits and vegetables by his vegetarian mother, Ty-Michael Schmidt never even had a cold or ear infection before the age of five. Then doctors found a tumor in his abdomen. His mother, and some scientists, suspect the tumor has something to do with the fact that he lives near a nuclear power plant.

“I never knew a child with cancer until my son,” says Audra Schmidt of Hobe Sound, Florida. “Now I know nothing but kids with cancer. At least 50 kids in our local area have it.”

But there’s not a cancer cluster in the neighborhood, according to the St. Lucie County, Florida Health Department, which conducted an in-depth study of the homes of 28 children with cancer. During the same period, another 12 cases were identified in near-by Martin County. Tests were conducted on water, soil, air and dust for 561 different chemicals and potential contaminants. The results were negative for all chemicals tested.

cancer cluster
Debi Santoro with her four-year-old daughter, Jadyn, whose cancer is now in remission. © TRISH RILEY

“We have yet to find any commonality,” says James Moses, director of environmental health for St. Lucie County. “We are dealing with 30 cases from 1981 to 1997. There was no cancer cluster.”

The study continues, though, because it did find a marked increase in childhood cancers of the brain and central nervous system: 15 diagnosed in three years, nine within a seven-month period. The report notes that the trend should be monitored and perhaps studied further.

Health officials did not test for Strontium 90 (Sr-90), a radioactive carcinogenic byproduct of nuclear fission. The Radiation and Public Health Project (RPHP), a nonprofit research center in New York City, recently released a study linking increased incidence of childhood cancers to areas near nuclear power plants. The study was published in the peer-reviewed Archives of Environmental Health last year.

“Of the 14 areas studied, the two counties closest to the reactors in St. Lucie County had the highest cancer rates,” says principal researcher Joseph Mangano, national coordinator of the RPHP. Mangano says the Florida State Cancer Registry lists four cases in St. Lucie County for children under 10 from 1981 to 1983, but this increased to 30 cases from 1996 to 1998. Accounting for a near doubling of population, the incidence still represents a 40 percent increase, compared to an average national increase of 11 percent in childhood cancers.

The RPHP has also been studying radiation levels in baby teeth of children around the country. Dubbed the Tooth Fairy Project, (see Your Health, “Glowing in the Dark,” May/June 2002), researchers report higher levels of Sr-90 near nuclear power plants, including St. Lucie and Miami-Dade counties. Water samples indicate higher levels of Sr-90 in areas within 20 miles of the nuclear power plants than in more distant locales. The study also found that the levels of Sr-90 in the teeth of children diagnosed with cancer were nearly twice as high as levels in children who do not have cancer.

These results are hotly disputed by the multi-billion dollar nuclear power industry. “Their claims are false,” says Rachel Scott, spokesperson for Florida Power and Light, which owns the St. Lucie and Miami’s Turkey Point nuclear power plants. “Cancer levels are not higher in South Florida. The levels of Strontium 90 are not higher in South Florida, according to the Florida Department of Health and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.”

The nuclear industry blames any Sr-90 still in the environment on residual effects of bomb testing. But a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report says because of decay, insignificant levels of Sr-90 remain in the soil and atmosphere from the bomb tests that ended 40 years ago.

“This touches a nerve in the nuclear power industry,” says Stephen Lester, science director of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ). “These plants are releasing small quantities of low-level radiation every day. The amounts may seem insignificant, but when you look at 50 cities, you can see it slowly has an impact.”

At least two families were sufficiently convinced to file suit against Florida Power and Light because of their children’s illnesses, which include one death. “A huge thing at stake here is the state of nuclear power plants,” says Nancy LaVista, attorney for the plaintiff families. “If in fact it is giving cancer to our children, we have a right to know and a duty to protect all citizens of Florida.”

St. Lucie and Martin County families have joined forces to create a packet detailing their children’s illnesses. “It’s not so much for our children, who are already sick,” says organizer Debi Santoro, whose four-year-old daughter, Jadyn, contracted cancer when she was six months old. “It’s for the children to come. These children are dying and they’re not going to die in vain—they’re going to help other children.” In another part of the country, New York’s Westchester and Suffolk counties and the state of New Jersey have appropriated funds to study areas near nuclear plants where cancer clusters are suspected.

A 2003 report released by the European Committee on Radiation Risk found the risk from low-level radiation to be significant, concluding that “the present cancer epidemic is a consequence of exposures to global atmospheric weapons fallout in the period 1959 to 1963 and that more recent releases of radioisotopes to the environment from the operation of the nuclear fuel cycle will result in significant increases in cancer and other types of ill health.”

Meanwhile, U.S. industry officials insist on labeling the reports “junk science,” and eagerly push a nuclear energy agenda. The federal government and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission are currently promoting legislation to renew interest in nuclear power and encourage the development of more new nuclear power plants for the first time since the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979.

Stephen Lester of CHEJ suggests the power industry adopt his organization’s new Be Safe Campaign. “It’s based on the fundamental principle of public health that says, “if it is dangerous or has the potential to harm, proceed with caution.””

Now 10, Ty-Michael Schmidt spent a year in the hospital undergoing radical experimental treatment for a rare form of cancer. Doctors have never been particularly encouraging about his prognosis, giving him only six months to live when he was diagnosed four years ago, but he is in remission and he’s beaten the odds thus far. Doctors say his cancer can be traced to fetal cells, meaning it developed in utero.

For now, RPHP researchers recommend that concerned people try a remarkably simple precaution: drink only water that comes from a deep, protected source or that has been filtered to remove Sr-90 particles (such as by reverse osmosis). If only Audra Schmidt and the dozens of other parents of ill children in her community had known that.