Is NY’s Indian Point Reactor Causing Thyroid Cancer?

Indian point, nuclear reactor, radiation, thyroid cancer
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The Indian Point nuclear reactor is located in Buchanan, New York, in the northern part of Westchester County, about 23 miles north of New York City. When the plant opened in the mid 1970s, the rate of thyroid cancer in four surrounding counties—Westchester, Rockland, Orange, and Putnam counties—was 22 percent below the U.S. rate. Now, thyroid cancer cases have jumped from around 50 per year to more than 400 per year in the region, with a rate that is 53 percent above the national average.

In the most recent period studied—2003 to 2007—the Putnam, Rockland, Orange, and Westchester County rates were 105.5 percent, 74.5 percent, 63.5 percent, and 33.4 percent above the U.S. average. Putnam, Rockland, and Orange had among the highest thyroid cancer rates of all U.S. counties with more than 100,000 residents.

The overall rate of thyroid cancer diagnosis has tripled in the last three decades. Some of this increase is due to better detection of smaller thyroid cancers, but some experts believe that some of the increase is also due to increasing incidence.

A peer-reviewed study conducted by the Radiation and Public Health Project, and published in the Journal of Environmental Protection, used data from the New York State Cancer Registry to track rates of cancer in Putnam, Rockland, Orange, and Westchester counties over four decades. The findings suggest that overall increases in cancer and soaring thyroid cancer rates may be the result of emissions from the Indian Point nuclear power plant.

The researchers compared cancer rates for five-year periods between of 1988 and 2007. They found unexplained increases in 19 out of 20 major types of cancer, with the greatest increase in thyroid cancer. According to the researchers, the report’s findings are “consistent and statistically significant”  and suggest that one or more factors—potentially radiation exposure from Indian Point—are causing otherwise unexplained increases in cancer rates in the region.

Another study found significantly elevated thyroid cancer rates from 2001 to 2005 in a 90-mile radius encompassing eastern Pennsylvania, central New Jersey, and southern New York. This area is also the location of 13 nuclear power reactors, including Indian Point, and was the location of three now-shuttered reactors, including Three Mile Island.

Radiation exposure is, in fact, the only known risk factor for thyroid cancer; the radiation dose size and age at exposure are important. After radiation exposure, research shows that there’s a minimum period of five to 10 years before the thyroid cancer appears. According to the National Cancer Institute, above-ground weapons testing in the 1950s in Nevada later caused more than 200,000 cases of thyroid cancer in Americans. Nuclear accidents at the Chernobyl and Fukushima reactors were followed by increases in thyroid cancer in the population downwind of the radioactive emissions. Radiation treatments to the head and neck are also linked to an increased risk of thyroid cancer.

Given this understanding of the relationship between radiation and thyroid cancer, the study calls for more comprehensive research into thyroid cancer patterns and the relationship to nuclear plants, in an attempt to explain soaring rates.

Whether Indian Point is a health risk has wide implications for the almost 2 million people who live within 20 miles of Indian Point, and the more than 17 million people live within a 50-mile radius of the plant, more than any other U.S. nuclear plant.

One perplexing story is shared by Joanne DeVito, who lived 9 miles away from Indian Point for years. DeVito is convinced that Indian Point has affected her family’s health. Her adult daughter was recently diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and within a month, her two other adult daughters were also diagnosed. DeVito told the Highlands Current newspaper that she then called her own doctor.

I said, “You’re not going to believe this.” She said, “You better come in.” I live an extremely healthy lifestyle. I’m a yoga teacher and an organic gardener. But sure enough, I had it.”

A Word From Verywell

According to the American Cancer Society, if you are potentially at risk of thyroid cancer, there may be some ways to protect yourself and your family.

Keep potassium iodide tablets on hand, and if there is a nuclear accident, authorities will instruct you when to take them. Potassium iodide can protect the thyroid against radioactive exposure and is especially important for children.

Make sure you are getting enough iodine from food and supplements. Iodine deficiency appears to increase the risk of thyroid cancer if you are exposed to radioactivity.

View Article Sources
  • Altekruse, S., Das, A., Cho, H., Petkov, V. and Yu, M. (2015) Do Thyroid Cancer Incidence Rates Increase with Socioeconomic Status among People with Health Insurance? An Observational Study Using SEER Population-Based Data. BMJ Open, 5, Article ID: e009846.
  • Iglesias M, et al. "Radiation exposure and thyroid cancer: a review." Arch Endocrinol Metab. 2017 Mar-Apr;61(2):180-187. doi: 10.1590/2359-3997000000257. Epub 2017 Feb 16
  • Mangano, J. and Sherman, J. (2017) Rising Thyroid Cancer Incidence Proximate to a New York City-Area Nuclear Power Plant. Journal of Environmental Protection, 8, 1446-1459.