A Newspaper Invents A Nuclear Health Scare.

January 01, 1998  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Wall Street Journal  ·  Media

The scare began with a front-page article in the Nashville Tennessean early last year about "mysterious illnesses" near the weapons-grade uranium processing facility at the Oak Ridge Reservation in eastern Tennessee. It has since become international news, will soon be a TV movie directed by Cher, and now includes every major Department of Energy nuclear site.

At the least the scare will probably cost millions of dollars in wasted scientific studies. It could set off witch hunts as devastating as those that clobbered the nuclear power and silicone breast implant industries, with billions of dollars in lawsuits and millions of traumatized people. It could even threaten America’s nuclear deterrent.

The first article, "Toxic Burn: Fear and Fire in Oak Ridge," ran in February 1997. It claimed the facility’s incinerator had caused area residents to fall ill. A panel appointed by the governor refuted the assertion. But the Tennessean has since published more than 100 articles on the subject, blaming anything and everything. Its suspect list includes at least seven radioactive materials, three different solvents, four different metals, and even common liquids like gasoline, propane and kerosene.

The newspaper also expanded its investigation to all the nation’s Energy Department weapons plants. This Sept. 29 it published an astounding 20-article blitz in which it claimed not only that "preliminary scientific research" shows "the rate of illness" around Oak Ridge to be "disturbingly high," but that "Tennessean reporters interviewed people at 12 other [defense-related] nuclear sites in this country and have found similar patterns of unexplained illnesses."

It boasted, "Reporters Susan Thomas and Laura Frank interviewed . . . 410 individuals in 11 states, documenting the same pattern of unexplained respiratory, neurological and immune system disorders."

Oak Ridge Reservation in Tennessee.

The story was picked up by numerous other newspapers and wire services, with titles like "Mysterious Illnesses Plague Those Near Nation’s Nuclear Plants" and "Ills Haunt Nuke Neighbors." Several Tennessee congressmen have called for investigations, including Republican Sen. Bill Frist, a physician.

Yet a close reading of the Sept. 29 stories shows how thin the claim was. The "similar pattern" of illness the Tennessean repeatedly refers to actually includes more than 70 different ailments, ranging from dizziness to diabetes, muscle pain to memory loss, hives to heart disease, slurred speech to seizures, blackouts to blisters, labored breathing to liver ailments. The afflictions include both weight loss and weight gain, both low and high blood pressure. The only pattern was an absolute lack of consistency in symptoms.

Nor was there any pattern in the levels of exposure to whatever was supposedly causing these ailments. Some of the 410 worked at the plants, while others lived many miles away.

Instead of science, readers get heart-wrenching quotes: "We are the walking dead. Everything hurts. It’s like a bomb has gone off in my body," said one alleged victim. Said another, "I see my girls suffering, but the doctors can’t tell me why. I can’t explain how horrible it is not to be able to help them. And when I think the cause might be environmental, just because we live here next to the plant, that’s really, really scary."

In fact, the answer to this "mystery" is simple. Any group of people will have a certain amount of sickness. By the Tennessean’s own reckoning, six of the 13 sites whose nearby populations it investigated have among them more than four million people living within 50 miles — apparently the paper’s definition of living "near" a facility. No figures are given for the other seven sites. But just considering the four million, that’s only one illness per 10,000 people.

The lack of satisfactory diagnoses is typical as well. Several studies have shown that doctors can make no firm diagnosis in about half of their patients, while a recent Swiss study found that "a clearcut diagnosis is possible in only about 10 percent of all cases." With a bit of effort, it should be possible to find 410 unsatisfactorily diagnosed people in a tall Manhattan apartment building.

What’s more, some of these "mysteriously ill" people have been given specific diagnoses. And how can diseases that afflict tens of millions of Americans, such as heart disease and hypertension, be labeled "mysterious"?

What about that evidence of "disturbingly high" rates of illness near the Oak Ridge Reservation? State Health Department statistics actually show that the city of Oak Ridge and the two counties in which it lies, Roane and Anderson, are the picture of health.

Compared to the state’s other 93 counties and adjusting for age, they are above average in terms of infant deaths, cancer deaths, deaths from lung disease and deaths overall. For this last category, Anderson County ranks right near the top. They are also better than average compared with the nation as a whole.

The only alleged "abnormality" the Tennessean has quantified is that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention "found that asthma is afflicting almost twice as many Scarboro children as the national average." Scarboro is an enclave of Oak Ridge. The paper doesn’t mention a 1996 CDC report documenting that black children 5 to 14 are "four times more likely than whites to die from asthma." Scarboro is almost exclusively black, so a rate twice the national average may be abnormally low.

I interviewed both Susan Thomas and Laura Frank of the Tennessean. Both struck me as intelligent, sincere and just plain nice. Both admitted a complete lack of medical reporting background. "Laura and I are simply journalists," Ms. Thomas said. "We don’t pretend to have any special qualifications other than reporting what people tell us. We don’t draw conclusions."

And in fact the claim of "disturbingly high" illnesses around Oak Ridge appeared in an article not by them but by the newspaper’s editor, Frank Sutherland. Indeed, Ms. Frank took issue with some of the strong conclusions others are drawing from their work. Ms. Frank said their reporting "is being treated as if it’s some kind of survey, but it’s not. We just talked to a lot of people."

Ms. Frank said it was disturbing that Sen. Frist, in a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, referred to the Tennessean’s 410 cases as "data." "It’s definitely not data. It’s not enough to base policy decisions on," Ms. Frank said.

It is, however, enough to terrify people. Dimitrios Trichopoulos, an epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health, delicately labels the newspaper’s fabricated epidemic and the ensuing pack journalism as "disturbing." More poignantly, he says it reminds him of how he and other researchers documented that 7,000 of his fellow Greeks aborted their babies shortly after the Chernobyl accident because yellow journalism had terrified them into thinking radiation all the way from Russia would cause severe birth defects.

But there’s more potential fallout than fear. For one, the costs could be tremendous. The government estimates its potential legal liability at $2.1 billion in the most significant cases at four of its sites. That doesn’t count the lesser cases, the other nine sites, and mostly it doesn’t count the flood of lawsuits that are going to erupt from all the new media attention spurred by Cher’s forthcoming movie. Those 410 cases will quickly become 4,100, then perhaps 41,000, as trial lawyers smell blood.

Worse yet is the threat to national defense. Some of the plants in question are no longer open, but others, including Oak Ridge, still produce vital nuclear materials for America’s strategic defense. Padlocking these, too, is the agenda of antinuclear activist groups, even as they hide behind health — groups with names like the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance.

On the basis of the Tennessean’s findings, we shouldn’t slash our nuclear deterrent, launch costly investigations around 13 different areas, frighten millions of people, and further line the pockets of trial lawyers. Applying a bit of science and a bit of sanity seems a much better solution.