What’s Causing Thyroid Cancer to Soar?

New study explores possible link to nuclear plant

By Brian PJ Cronin

It was four years ago that Joanne DeVito, who spent 14 years living in and raising her children in Rockland County, received a call from her eldest daughter with surprising news.

“She said to me, ‘Mom, they found a lump in my throat,’ ” recalled DeVito. Her doctor suspected thyroid cancer, but DeVito was skeptical. “I told her ‘We don’t have any thyroid cancer in our family.’ ” Three days later, the diagnosis was confirmed. Over the next month, DeVito’s two other grown daughters called to say they also had thyroid cancer. So DeVito called her own doctor.

“I said, ‘You’re not going to believe this,’ ” said DeVito. “She said, ‘You better come in.’ I live an extremely healthy lifestyle. I’m a yoga teacher and an organic gardener. But sure enough, I had it.”

DeVito’s doctors couldn’t explain why thyroid cancer suddenly befell her family. But a peer-reviewed study by Joseph Mangano and Janette Sherman of the Radiation and Public Health Project published on Nov. 17 in the Journal of Environmental Protection, suggests that researchers look 8 miles upriver from DeVito’s home, at the Indian Point nuclear power plant.

A depiction of the thyroid gland

Thyroid cancer is the fastest-growing cancer in the U.S., with national rates tripling since the early 1970s. Shaped like a butterfly, the gland is located at the front of the neck just below the larynx (voice box). It produces hormones that regulate the rate at which the body uses energy, as well as functions of the heart, digestive tract, muscles, brain and bones.

More accurate diagnoses of the cancer account for some of the rise, but researchers believe there may be other factors. The disease affects women at a higher rate than men, for reasons that are unclear. Certain genetic mutations could be a factor. The only widely accepted root cause is exposure to ionizing radiation, such as from long-since outlawed medical procedures involving head and neck irradiation and fallout from nuclear attacks and meltdowns.

Survivors of the atomic bomb blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki suffered from high rates of thyroid cancer, as did survivors of the 1986 accident at Chernobyl. A 1999 study by the National Cancer Institute suggested as many as 212,000 Americans may have developed thyroid cancer as a result of the above-ground nuclear testing in Nevada in the 1950s. Mangano and Sherman’s study examines the hypothesis that low-level doses of iodized radiation from both planned and unplanned releases of radioactive steam when the Indian Point reactors shut down for refueling or emergency measures play a role.

Has Your KI Expired?

The federal government has recommended since 2001 that residents who live within a 10-mile radius of the Indian Point Energy Center (the “Emergency Planning Zone”) keep a supply of potassium iodide tablets, known as KI, on hand.

Should there be a major leak at the nuclear plant, each tablet prevents the thyroid gland from absorbing radiation for 24 hours. It does not protect other organs. The tablets are not recommended for adults over the age of 40 as that group has the lowest risk of thyroid cancer. Fetuses and infants are the most at risk.

The Putnam County Bureau of Emergency Services distributes the pills. (If you have a supply, it should be replaced if expired. The old tablets can be safely discarded in the trash.) Tablets are available from the Philipstown Town Clerk at 238 Main St. in Cold Spring on weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Call 845-265-3329.

Using data from the New York State Cancer Registry, the study examined the rates of thyroid cancer in Putnam, Rockland, Orange and Westchester counties. From 1976 to 1981, the rates were 22 percent below the national average. As of 2014, the rate has increased to 53 percent over the national average.

“It’s going up everywhere,” said Mangano. “But it’s going up much, much faster here.”

Although this is the 37th study that Mangano has written or co-written, some of his work has been criticized as “junk science,” notably by Entergy, which owns Indian Point, and Popular Mechanics, which in 2014 documented flaws in two papers, including one that suggested that fallout from the 2011 nuclear accident at Fukushima led to 14,000 deaths in the U.S.

However, the thyroid cancer study is quick to point out possible flaws in its own hypothesis. For one, it’s possible there are other, unknown causes besides radiation that could be responsible for the local increases. The study also acknowledges that because Indian Point does not measure the amount of waste products emitted during ventings, it’s difficult to know exactly how much ionized radiation is released.

Symptoms of Thyroid Cancer

A lump in the neck, sometimes growing quickly
Swelling in the neck
Pain in the front of the neck, sometimes up to the ears
Hoarseness or other voice changes that do not go away
Trouble swallowing
Trouble breathing
A constant cough that is not due to a cold

Mangano hopes that the study will lead to better data being collected, and for other researchers to conduct similar studies near other nuclear plants for comparison.

While the cause of the local increase in thyroid cancer is the subject of debate, the increase is not. Susan Shapiro, an environmental attorney who serves on the board of the nonprofit Radiation and Public Health Project, suggested that residents ask to be checked for thyroid cancer annually by their doctor or dentist. She also suggested keeping a supply of potassium iodide pills on hand, which can be taken during a radiation emergency to protect the gland.

If detected early, the 5-year survival rate for thyroid cancer is over 98 percent. But it leaves the immune system compromised, as DeVito and her daughters have learned. “They say it’s a good cancer,” she said. “I’m not finding it so good.”

More on Life After Indian Point

Leaving Waste High and Dry
Where Will the Jobs Go?
People Power
Hard Lessons From Zion

7 thoughts on “What’s Causing Thyroid Cancer to Soar?

  1. Everyone in Philipstown should have or pick up these pills (Kl) at the Town Hall. One never knows if and when they will be needed but it’s a free fix to saving your family from thyroid cancer.

  2. The doctor has been watching large nodules in my daughter’s thyroid for years. We live within 8 miles of Indian Point. She also participated in baby-tooth study for Strontium 90 and also her breast milk when she was lactating. The last thing she wanted to do was pass along breast milk that could be contaminated. Hers was OK but others were not so lucky.

  3. The “new study” that you cite in your article is from a notorious anti-nuclear pseudo-scientist, and the article that you’ve subsequently published does a disservice to the intelligence of your readers and the reputation of The Highlands Current. Please be more rigorous about your standards, and your fact-checking, so that you may continue to strengthen your voice in our community.

  4. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has weighed in on research done by the Radiation Public Health Project on multiple occasions. The organization has published numerous studies seeking to link U.S. nuclear power plant operations with increases in thyroid cancer cases in the vicinity of those facilities. The NRC has found little or no credibility when it comes to those studies. What’s more, numerous peer-reviewed scientific studies do not support the organization’s assertions.

    Questions we have raised about the group’s studies have included the areas of methodology, assumptions and conclusions. In general, we have found that these studies have not followed good scientific principles and that frequently they have:

    * not established control populations for study;
    * not examined the impacts of other risk factors;
    * used very small sample sizes to draw general conclusions;
    * not performed environmental sampling and analysis;
    * cherry-picked data or [items] selectively chosen to ignore data in certain geographic locations or during certain periods of time because they did not “fit”;
    * not subjected their data to the independent peer review of the scientific community as a whole.

    The evaluation of health effects from exposure to radiation is an ongoing activity of the NRC involving public, private and international institutions. The NRC routinely seeks out new scientific information that might reveal health and safety concerns. It reviews independent studies of nuclear safety issues and embraces opportunities to inform the public about the results of such reviews. Again, the NRC finds there is little or no credibility in the studies published by the Radiation Public Health Project.

    Sheehan is a public affairs officer for the NRC.

  5. This bogus study of cluster of cancer follows the lead of reports from Long Island many years ago that tried to link breast cancer to nuclear facility, causing it to close. And unfortunately it is following a pattern of recent public hysteria from those with little scientific background resulting in reports of autism onsets, vaccinations, etc. Anecdotal reports are often coincidental and cannot be the basis for studies or policy.

  6. One of the best arguments I can think of for keeping a large number of nuclear power plants around the globe in operation is that they act as a credible deterrent to the outbreak of widespread, general thermonuclear warfare, and to the idea, which has been repeatedly and seriously proposed, that this type of warfare is somehow “winnable.”

    Of course, this deterrent only works if those in control of the codes and switches know that a general thermonuclear war would knock out power grids across the planet, which in turn after a short time would enable the release into the environment of all the “spent” but still highly radioactive material stored onsite at the various nuclear power plants from their required 24/7/365/effectively-forever cooling. This release would contaminate most of the lithosphere and eventually would kill all higher forms of life on the planet. Cockroaches probably would survive. Yes, unfortunately this gives cockroaches an incentive to acquire control of the codes and the switches.

    A curious but notable side effect, or consequence, of this situation is that it provides a certain kind of a “democratic” veto power to the large-scale use of nuclear force globally, as more nations, specifically smaller and weaker ones, seek nuclear weapons technology as a deterrent to the threats to move their cheese (or worse) recently and repeatedly given by the militaries of larger and more powerful nations.

    However this does not necessarily imply that it’s a good idea to locate nuclear power plants in direct proximity to large, dense population centers.

  7. The recent journal article documenting high local thyroid cancer rates is a call for officials to better understand causes. It is more than time!

    My three daughters and I were diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and within months we all had our thyroid glands surgically removed. We lived within eight miles from Indian Point for over 14 years. There is no history of any cancer in my family.

    I am told it is a “good” cancer because many survive. Not so! Having surgery, taking daily medication and continuously trying to adjust it, taking ultrasounds to see if the cancer has grown back, taking blood tests and living with the worry of it returning after it metastasized to lymph nodes.

    The four us have to live with this. Why and how can the Nuclear Regulatory Commission not only ignore local disease and death rates but oppose any research that says otherwise? The NRC was created by Congress in 1974 to ensure the safe use of radioactive materials for beneficial civilian purposes while protecting people and environment.

    For my family, it is too late. We have moved out of Rockland County to Branford, Connecticut, but the cancer and aftermath have followed us. The children and families surrounding Indian Point are in need of your help.