Public health hazards from electricity-producing plants

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Science  25 Feb 1977:
Vol. 195, Issue 4280, pp. 754-758
DOI: 10.1126/science.836584


When a new electricity-producing plant is to be built in a given locality it is natural to take into account the public health consequences of the normal operation of each type of plant contemplated. Here, the fossil-burning plants and nuclear facilities come under consideration. I have attempted to show that, in spite of the many important studies performed, there is currently no reliable methodology to estimate how many more cancer cases, and how many more heart attacks and other diseases have to be anticipated as a consequence of the normal operation of this or that type of electric generator. In part, this is because the currently available estimates of radiation effects on humans are based on extrapolations from studies of two kinds. Those of one kind may be exemplified by studies of atomic bomb casualties in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The other kind are laboratory experiments with lower animals, frequently mice. The unreliability of both kinds of extrapolations is connected with the following circumstances: (i) The omnipresent troublesome phenomenon of competing risks. (ii) The dependence of health effects of a given noxious agent on the preexisting local pollution. (iii) The dependence of health effects not only on the "dose" of an agent, but also on the rate at which the agent is administered. (iv) The noted difficulties of making extrapolations from one mammal to another. Our obtaining reliable estimates of the public health effects of extra pollution from new industrial plants would seem to depend on a large multipollutant and multilocality epidemiological study being conducted--one requiring the cooperative effort of several governmental agencies. However, a much easier study of certain developments in the vicinity of Rocky Flats, Colorado, might provide important direct information on health phenomena as they occur in real life.