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Environ Health Perspect. 1997 Jan; 105(1): 52–57.
PMCID: PMC1469835
Research Article

A reevaluation of cancer incidence near the Three Mile Island nuclear plant: the collision of evidence and assumptions.


Previous studies concluded that there was no evidence that the 1979 nuclear accident at Three Mile Island (TMI) affected cancer incidence in the surrounding area; however, there were logical and methodological problems in earlier reports that led us to reconsider data previously collected. A 10-mile area around TMI was divided into 69 study tracts, which were assigned radiation dose estimates based on radiation reading and models of atmospheric dispersion. Incident cancers from 1975 to 1985 were ascertained from hospital records and assigned to study tracts. Associations between accident doses and incidence rates of leukemia, lung cancer, and all cancer were assessed using relative dose estimates calculated by the earlier investigators. Adjustments were made for age, sex, socioeconomic characteristics, and preaccident variation in incidence. Considering a 2-year latency, the estimated percent increase per dose unit +/- standard error was 0.020 +/- 0.012 for all cancer, 0.082 +/- 0.032 for lung cancer, and 0.116 +/- 0.067 for leukemia. Adjustment for socioeconomic variables increased the estimates to 0.034 +/- 0.013, 0.103 +/- 0.035, and 0.139 +/- 0.073 for all cancer, lung cancer, and leukemia, respectively. Associations were generally larger considering a 5-year latency, but were based on smaller numbers of cases. Results support the hypothesis that radiation doses are related to increased cancer incidence around TMI. The analysis avoids medical detection bias, but suffers from inaccurate dose classification; therefore, results may underestimate the magnitude of the association between radiation and cancer incidence. These associations would not be expected, based on previous estimates of near-background levels of radiation exposure following the accident.

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