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3 Mile Island Not Linked to Cancer Death

20 Years Later After Radiation Leak, No Excess Deaths

Nov. 1, 2002 -- The near-meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania was the worst nuclear disaster in U.S. history. It could have been a lot worse. A new study now shows neighboring residents may be even luckier than we thought.

People exposed to radioactive gases leaked during the event don't seem to have more deaths from cancer than other Americans. The report, by Evelyn Talbott, DrPH, and colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh, appears on a National Institutes of Health web site. It will be published in the March 2003 issue of the NIH journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

"Radioactivity released during the nuclear accident at TMI does not appear to have caused an overall increase in cancer deaths among residents of that area," Talbott says in a news release.

The findings aren't conclusive proof that nobody got hurt. An earlier study, conducted 13 years after the event, found increased risk of breast cancer among the 32,135 people living near the nuclear plant. The new study, 20 years after the event, finds only a statistically non-significant trend toward more breast cancer.

The study did find a slight increase in deaths from blood and lymph cancers among TMI-area men related to degree of exposure to radiation from the accident. It also found a slight increase in these cancers among TMI-area women related to background radiation exposure.

"While these findings overall convey good news for TMI residents, the slight increased risk of death from [these] cancers may warrant further investigation," Talbott says.

The 1979 TMI incident came about because of a series of mechanical malfunctions and human errors. These problems led to partial meltdown of the nuclear core of the reactor. A far greater disaster was only narrowly averted. Even so, a plume of radioactive gases escaped the plant.

Researchers now think that area residents didn't get a very high dose of radiation. Over 10 days, they got the same radiation dose as an average American gets in a year of normal, everyday background radiation.

Nobody knows the long-term health effects of low-level radiation exposure. But the new findings are reassuring evidence that small exposures don't necessarily mean big problems.