Friday, March 04, 2005

Real Science Refutes the "Tooth Fairy"

This weekend on CNN, we expect the network to air a report on the "Tooth Fairy" project -- an attempt by New Jersey-based activist Joseph Mangano to demonstrate a link between Strontium 90 (Sr-90), nuclear plants and childhood cancer by analyzing the levels of Sr-90 found in baby teeth.

But despite the fact that there isn't any scientific evidence to back up his claims, they keep resurfacing like that proverbial bad penny.

The nuclear industry has been debunking this story for years now, most recently in New Jersey, where Mangano testified before the the New Jersey Commission on Radiation Protection in connection with license extension application that is expected to be filed with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for the Oyster Creek nuclear power plant on New Jersey's eastern shore.

NEI Executive Vice President Angie Howard was interviewed for the segment, where she explained that Sr-90, which has a half-life of 28 years, exists in the environment primarily due to aboveground nuclear weapons testing once undertaken by the U.S. and other countries. Further, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been monitoring for Sr-90 and other isotopes for years -- even before nuclear power plants began operating, in order to establish baseline data against which future radiation levels could be compared.

Consistently, the NRC has found no appreciable changes from background radiation near nuclear plants. In all, eight state departments of health have investigated Mangano's claims, and all eight states (Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Michigan) refused to validate them.

Here's what the New Jersey Commission on Radiation Protection reported to then-Gov. Jim McGreevey about one of Mangano's studies back in February 2004:

The Commission is of the opinion that "Radioactive Strontium-90 in Baby Teeth of New Jersey Children and the Link with Cancer: A Special Report," is a flawed report, with substantial errors in methodology and invalid statistics. As a result, any information gathered through this project would not stand up to the scrutiny of the scientific community. There is also no evidence to support the allegation that the State of New Jersey has a problem with the release of Sr-90 into the environment from nuclear generating plants: more than 30 years of environmental monitoring data refute this.

For more background on the "Tooth Fairy" Project, click here for a summary of the issue, and here for a copy of the NEI fact sheet.


Ben Whitmore said...

You say "the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been monitoring for Sr-90 and other isotopes for years [...] Consistently, the NRC has found no appreciable changes from background radiation near nuclear plants."
You seem to be talking about two different things here: levels of Sr-90 (and other isotopes) on the one hand, and levels of background radiation on the other. You don't actually tell us whether levels of Sr-90 in the environment have increased over the years or not; and increases in Sr-90 significant enough to be detected in children's teeth might not cause any appreciable increase in background radiation.

You must remember, there are well-known mechanisms of biological amplification whereby certain heavy isotopes become concentrated, especially through the food chain; amounts that seem negligible, especially when measured from a distance as 'background radiation' can become more significant after concentration and when measured at close range.

Furthermore, what you seem to be saying is that measures of background radiation somehow falsify this fellow's research. But that presupposes a whole load of assumptions about how strontium might be distributed and propagated, what levels are significant, and the reliability of environmental testing. If he has truly found a statistically significant increase in Sr in teeth, then surely that's a more concrete piece of evidence than all those rather nebulous assumptions. Surely the only scientifically sound way to falsify his research is to repeat his test, and ascertain whether Sr levels in teeth truly have risen or not. If they have, then you have the task of trying to figure out why.

This test is presumably relatively simple and inexpensive to run (much cheaper than environmental testing), so until someone does so and manages to falsify his results, I have very little faith in his critics.

Perhaps someone has already done this, in which case please forgive me -- and it would be great to add a citation of this to your post. As it is, you have not cited any such repeat experiment. If, on the other hand, there has been no repeat experiment, it rather begs the question of why: is this something the nuclear industry would prefer not to know?

Ben Whitmore said...

Oh, I should note that Mongano's more recent attempt to correlate increased deaths with Fukushima radiation does seem statistically insane from what I've read so far, so I'm not saying he's necessarily right about the 'tooth fairy' study either -- I just don't think your 'refutation' is a proper refutation.