BY MICHAEL R. FOX PHD – Yet another claim purporting to show the danger to public health from nuclear power plants is drawing attention, this one maintaining infant mortality rose thousands of miles away in the Pacific Northwest following the accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan
Once again exaggerated assertions of “lethal radiation” and associated scare stories have linked radiation at extremely low levels and ill health. This link is made not by rational analysis but by hysterical claims and charges by people who have a long history of engaging in such sensationalism.
Such claims usually consist of selective data, combined with the incidence of infant mortality or cancer in our society, and a large dose of scaremongering. If you examine any of the radiation scare stories, you will find this formula being used.
The latest to surface comes from Dr. Janette Sherman and epidemiologist Joseph Mangano who use recently published data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to justify their assertion that the mortality rate for infants in the Pacific Northwest has jumped since the crisis at the Fukushima plant began unfolding on March 11.
It is worth noting that Mangano, a New Jersey-based anti-nuclear activist, created the “tooth fairy” project – in which he claimed a link between childhood cancers and background radiation near nuclear power plants. In response to his claims, the New Jersey Commission on Radiation Protection rejected Mangano’s allegations as flawed, with substantial errors in methodology and invalid statistics. Seven other states also refused to validate Mangano’s claims.
With the Fukushima accident, Sherman and Mangano made selective use of recently published data on death and disease in the U.S., broken down by location. They tallied up all the deaths of babies less than one year old in eight Pacific Northwest cities, using some cities while leaving out others to support their claims.
Then they compared the average number of deaths per week for the four weeks preceding the accident with the 10 weeks following. The jump – from 9.25 to 12.5 deaths per week – is “statistically significant,” Sherman and Mangano said.
The claim, however, is baseless. As Michael Moyer, writing in Scientific American, points out: it is true that there were fewer deaths in the four weeks leading up to Fukushima than there were in the ten weeks following, but the entire year has seen no overall trend. Only by excluding data from two particular months, Moyer said, were Sherman and Mangano able to come up with their “specious statistical scaremongering.”
Interestingly, a recent article on the Al Jazeera English web site cited the Sherman/Mangano claim of rising infant mortality. Al Jazeera said that “physician Jeanette Sherman MD and epidemiologist Joseph Mangano published an essay shedding light on a 35 percent spike in infant mortality in northwest cities that occurred after the Fukushima meltdown, and (sic) may well be the result of fallout from the stricken nuclear plant.”
Coincidentally, the House Science Committee in Congress heard testimony about Fukushima’s radioactive emissions from the noted radiation epidemiologist John D. Boice, Jr. Boice, professor in the Department of Medicine at Vanderbilt University, is scientific director of the International Epidemiology Institute and a commissioner of the International Commission on Radiological Protection.
Boice noted that Fukushima is 5,000 miles away from the U.S. Northwest and although radiation from Japan was detected in Washington State, it was substantially diluted after traveling such a long distance. He said the health consequences for U.S. citizens were “negligible to nonexistent.”
As a nuclear chemist for more than 40 years, I know that radiation is possibly the most thoroughly studied and understood phenomenon, in part because it is so easily measured. Monitoring stations in Washington State detected vanishingly small amounts of radiation. The detection of trace amounts of radiation speaks more about the extreme sensitivity of our radiation detectors than about the potential health consequences from the radiation itself. By sensationalizing the subject of radiation, anti-nuclear campaigners exploit fear of the unknown and unseen. Such claptrap should be seen for what it is.