Epidemiologist Steve Wing Discusses the Increases in Cancer Rates After Three Mile Island Accident (Part 1)

About This Video

These talks were recorded live at the Pennsylvania State Capitol on March 26, 2009.

Dr. Steven Wing's talk is about the long-term health effects to human, animal, and plant life in the aftermath of the accident at Three Mile Island.

Steven Wing teaches epidemiology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and conducts research on occupational and environmental health. Since 1988 he has collaborated on epidemiological studies of radiation exposures to workers at U.S. nuclear weapons plants. His 1997 and 2003 articles published in Environmental Health Perspectives describe impacts of radiation from the 1979 nuclear accident at Three Mile Island on cancer rates near the plant. His recent studies examine impacts of industrial animal production and environmental injustice.

Continued In Part 2




Steve Wing: Thank you for inviting me to come participate in this event. I think it is an important opportunity to get some information out which has unfortunately been all too hidden or unavailable. I really want to thank Arnie Gundersen for the work that you have done. It is certainly very interesting because I can tell you that when I became involved in this case, the case of the accident at Three Mile Island in 1979, I at the beginning only knew what I had read in the newspapers and to some degree in scientific journals, and they were based on the sorts of data that Arnie has just shared with us from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and from the utility. Based on that information and the estimates of about where people were and where radiation plumes went, it was widely promulgated that the maximum dose that anyone in the general public could have received, the maximum radiation dose, was much less than the average annual background radiation exposure that we have normally, that any of us would have. It is important to remember that we are all exposed to ionizing radiation every day. This is a universal exposure.

But then I began to be exposed to some alternative information from people who had been in this area at the time of the accident. So those of you who are historians or journalists and you are looking into, or are interested in what happened here, I really encourage you to talk to people who were here at the time.

I want to start in terms of the slides here, with a few photographs that were made by Robert Del Tredici, and Bob is here today. I just want to recognize Bob because he has done some really great work. Bob came in the summer of 1979 in the first time, in May, the spring of 1979, shortly after the accident. So what I want you to see, because I think it is very important to understanding what happened at the time, what it looked like here, because some of you here were not born then and others may not know what the area was like at the time, because this area has grown so much since 1979. So here is the Susquehanna River and Three Mile Island and I think it is really clear that this was a very agricultural area. It is important because this was a conservative culture, not a lot of people with higher degrees and professional experience. This is important because people who reported symptoms, which I will go into more later, symptoms that they experienced during the time of the accident, were . . . many people were told that it was impossible, because not enough radiation was released to cause any acute symptoms, which was known, and furthermore, if they continued with such reports, that this could be a sign of mental instability. Keep in mind now that these are not in general, people who are accustomed to going up against public officials or who would necessarily have experience with lawyers, strong capacity to advocate for themselves, in comparison to some more privileged populations that are in this area too.

Audience Member: May I please say, in the first slide, at the very bottom, in the foreground, are buried some of the first farmers . . .

SW: So there is a cemetery there. From the early 1700's. I never knew that. So this area has a long history of farming.

Audience Member: They were my ancestors who grew the best melons in the area because of the flood plain. Floods destroyed so much of the property, that they gave up melon farming and sold to the utilities.

SW: So the melons led to the placement of the nuclear reactors here... That is a real difference of power there, melons versus reactors.

I wanted to share with you a few more of Bob's photographs from May of 1979, because I think they give us a sense of how close some people were to the reactors. I have never been able to show Bob's pictures with him present, so any narration that you could share with us . . . Bob, could you say something about this photograph?

Robert Del Tredici: Londonderry Township on a nice spring day, with a symbol of wind power on the left, and fossil fuel in the boat on the right, and nuclear in the middle, with a defunct basketball net.

SW: But the child is still there.

RDT: The child in the middle of it all.... That is right there too, up from Meadow Lane, also Londonderry Township, I think it is Zion Road, that is where that is, and this farm, speaks for itself.

SW: So one of the types of reports, and these reports came from many, many people who were farmers, problems with their farm animals, things ranging from miscarriage to deaths of farm animals as well as pets.

RDT: And all kinds of arthritic conditions and blindness and other things like that. Difficulties giving birth, caesarean sections necessary...

SW: So Bob is recounting to us some of what he heard in interviews from this town here. Bob could you tell us . . .

RDT: From the top of Frye Village, the retirement home, from the roof, the highest point in town. You have to talk to Mary Olsen about the abundance of trees and the difference today, but that is what it looked like in the spring of 1979.

SW: So I want you to think about what you heard from Arnie Gundersen as you look at this photograph, because this gives you a picture that you can think about in terms of the plume to the missions. I think when we think about plumes, we might think of something that is present at a single point in time. But it also is very clear from what Arnie shared with us the emissions were not constant. They changed over time. So the source of the plume, the quantity of radioactive materials coming from the plant, changed at the time. Of course, the winds changed some, but very importantly, there was a temperature inversion at the time. This was very unusual weather here in this region. This has been very well documented and reported in The Journal of Weather which is the journal of the Royal Meteorological Society just several years ago by Dr. Vergeinier and his co-author. A very detailed analysis of the weather patterns during these 4 days, generally referred to as the 4 days of the accident.

But the plumes... because of the weather conditions rather than blowing out, I am sure you have all seen smoke coming from a chimney at the time when you can actually see the smoke traveling some distance from the chimney. At other times you cannot see it even a yard away from the chimney because of very rapid dispersion. But these were the weather conditions that were conducive to make whatever came out. And by the way, let's be clear, there has never been any question about whether there were releases. Everyone has always agreed that there were radiation releases during this accident. The questions have been about the amount of the releases. But the weather conditions are very important because Arnie's work is about the condition of the reactor and the amount of radiation that comes out of the reactors. But that is not what determines people's exposures. It is a part of what determines that, but also it is the transport. So if you think of these narrow plumes, they could have hit part of Middletown and not other parts.

So in the early 1990's, I met Norman and Marjorie Aamodt, who were working on the same lawsuits that Arnie was involved with, and they shared with me numerous affidavits and other testimony from residents, some of which was taken in a survey that Marjorie commented along with Mary Osborn and others, that describe in detail what people's experiences were during the accident. Some of these were people who were talking who said that they did not know yet about the accident. It was the first day in general when they experienced the symptoms that they talk about. But this had a big impact on me because I wondered, well, how can we understand what people reported.