August 27, 2001
Controversial cancer study resurfacing locally
by Paul Parson
Oak Ridger staff

A controversial cancer mortality study from the mid-90s is resurfacing in connection with current Oak Ridge health-related efforts.

Joseph Mangano's 1994 study will be used as a test subject for members of the Oak Ridge Reservation Health Effects Subcommittee, who are learning how to evaluate an epidemiologic study.

Mangano's study indicated that the death rate from cancer among whites in the 94 counties surrounding the Oak Ridge Reservation rose 34.1 percent between 1950-52 and 1987-89, compared to a 5.1-percent increase for the nation. That would suggest that of the 175,000 cancer deaths in the region during those four decades, about 20,000 exceeded statistical expectations.

Mangano was a member of the New York City-based Radiation and Public Health Project, a not-for-profit group dedicated to epidemiological research on the effects of low-level radiation on human beings. His study was published in the International Journal of Health Services

The area selected for study was the 94 counties that are completely or mostly situated within 100 miles of Oak Ridge. At the time, these counties had a population of just over 3 million and were located in five states: 46 in Tennessee, 19 in Kentucky, 16 in Georgia, 11 in North Carolina and two in Virginia.

In his study, Mangano said, "the limit of 100 miles was chosen since most of the milk and vegetables (which are the most important vectors for radioactivity) consumed in this region are produced therein." Furthermore, each of these counties are at least 100 miles from the nearest other weapons site, Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C.

The study also considers whether wind patterns, rainfall and proximity to the Oak Ridge Department of Energy facilities were a factor in the excess mortality rates.

Mangano's study also concluded that local urban areas near Oak Ridge experienced lower mortality rates; that the change in mortality rates upward was the greatest in the area closest to Oak Ridge; that increases in the mortality rates were greater in the mountainous areas; and that the greatest increases in mortality rates were downwind from Oak Ridge.

The study met with a lot of criticism by local officials and community members when it was released. Critics called it "absolutely false" and said that the "basic math" used to compute the excess cancer deaths did not add up.

Now, the report is resurfacing as a test subject for the Oak Ridge Reservation Health Effects Subcommittee's public health assessment work group, who will meet Tuesday evening for a course on how to evaluate an epidemiologic study.

Lucy Peipins, an epidemiologist with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, will conduct the program, which is open to the public. It begins at 5:30 p.m. in the Garden Plaza Hotel, 215 S. Illinois Ave.

The Health Effects Subcommittee consists of citizens primarily from the Oak Ridge area, who are working with community members and advocacy groups to offer advice and recommendations to federal agencies regarding health concerns in Oak Ridge. Subcommittee members are appointed by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a federal public health agency involved in hazardous waste issues.

The public health assessment workgroup is in charge of hammering out the details of a evaluation that will identify local off-site populations who were exposed to hazardous substances at levels of health concern.