Sitnews - Stories In The News - Ketchikan, Alaska - News, Features, Opinions...


Data shows cancer spurt from Alaska nuclear test site
Anchorage Daily News


August 11, 2005

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - People who worked on Amchitka Island during the nuclear testing program more than three decades ago have contracted radiation-related cancers at rates several times those of a comparable segment of the general population, according to an analysis of former workers.

Dr. Mary Ellen Gordian looked at data from two groups: medical screenings of 550 former Amchitka workers and reports from more than 1,400 former Amchitka workers who have contacted a federal program set up to help them file for compensation programs.

Gordian's work has not yet been peer-reviewed, and she said she expects to further refine it before publication probably later in the year.

Of the 550, all but two were men, and their average age was 65, said Gordian, a senior research associate with the Institute for Circumpolar Health Studies at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Gordian compared the rates for several radiation-related cancers diagnosed by doctors during those screenings with the rates that she said would be expected of a general population of men of all races in that age range.

"Their cancer rate certainly exceeded what would be expected for a group of 550," she said in an interview Tuesday.

Of the 550, 10 had bladder cancers. The expected number from such a group in the general population, Gordian said, would be 3.2.

Twelve had colon cancer, compared with an expected number of 3.9, her analysis says. A dozen were diagnosed with lymphoma, more than seven times the expected 1.7 cases among 550 people.

When Gordian expanded the analysis to include the second group - the 1,400 former Amchitka workers who have contacted the Amchitka Medical Surveillance Program - and considered the number of cancers claimed in compensation applications filed by those workers or their survivors, the comparisons are even more startling, according to Gordian and Knut Ringen, a doctor of public health affiliated with the Center to Protect Workers' Rights in Washington. Ringen is the principal investigator for the Amchitka program.

"Once again, we found that the rate was much higher than would be expected in this cohort of workers, much greater than a group of a similar age in the general population in the United States," Gordian said. "And this was true for all cancers except prostate cancer."

The 1,400 population analysis found 35 leukemia cases where 1.9 could be expected in a general population of the same age, Gordian and Ringen said. They also found more than 10 times the expected number of pancreatic cancers.

Amchitka was the site of three underground nuclear tests by the Atomic Energy Commission between 1965 and 1971. The last, the 5-megaton detonation of a Spartan missile warhead, was the largest underground test conducted by the United States.

An unknown number of workers in the mining, construction and other trades worked on the island during the testing period. Spotty records, the dissolution of old construction companies and the passage of time have made it difficult to identify or find many of those workers.

Government agencies involved in the tests have said for decades that no evidence existed that workers were exposed to radiation on the job.

"But the other side," Ringen said, "is that these are the data we have on the population, and there are so many more radiation cancers, or so many more of the types of cancer that are associated with radiation than there should be."

Researchers usually caution that trying to compare disease rates in small populations, like the Amchitka workers, is problematic and can be misleading. Gordian said the uncertainty about the overall number of people who worked on Amchitka during the tests also complicates her work. But she said she's confident her analysis will stand up.

The results should be submitted to a journal later in the year and peer-reviewed at that time. In addition, Ringen said he would circulate Gordian's work to other experts for comment.


Distributed by Scripps-McClatchy Western Service,

Publish A Letter on SitNews
        Read Letters/Opinions
Submit A Letter to the Editor

Stories In The News
Ketchikan, Alaska