A mysterious surge in the U.S. death rate during the summer of 1986 has statisticians and medical professionals confounded and disturbed. Data collected by the National Center for Health Statistics in Hyattsville, MD, reveal that somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 more Americans than usual died during the period May-August, 1986. Deaths from pneumonia were up 18.1 and deaths for "all infectious diseases" were up 22.5% compared to the same period in 1985.
Marvin Lavenhar, director of the division of biostatistics and epidemiology at the New Jersey Medical School in Newark, says, "You can't escape the fact that something happened in the summer of 1986."
The WALL STREET JOURNAL Feb. 8, 1988, reports that one researcher, Jay M. Gould of the Institute for Policy Studies, in Washington, DC, believes the increased deaths are statistically related to the cloud of radioactive fallout that covered the U.S. from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The clou reached the U.S. in early May, 1986. The amount of fallout on this country varied from place to place with rainfall.
Mr. Gould compared deaths in each of the nation's nine census regions with the amount of radioactive iodine-131 reported by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) monitoring stations, which regularly measure radioactive iodine in cow's milk. In states like Arizona and Texas, iodine levels were lowest and so were deaths. In California and Washington state, iodine was highest and so were deaths. Mr. Gould reports a consistent pattern across the country: the higher the iodine levels, the higher the deaths. Infant mortality figures also correlated strongly with iodine levels. A statistical correlation does not prove a cause and effect relationship.
Mr. Gould's work has set off a debate among medical people. Most cannot accept the idea that modest increases in radioactive iodine and other fallou could cause such noticeable health effects. Fallout levels in Europe were 100 to 1000 times higher that they were in the U.S. during the same period and Europeans are not reporting increased death rates. Dr. Ernest J. Sternglass, emeritus professor of radiological physics at University of Pittsburgh, who has figured prominently in past controversies over the effects of low-level radiation on health, asserts that low doses of ingested radiation are more destructive of cell tissue than higher doses of shorter duration. Others dispute this hypothesis.
Neal Nelson, a radiation biologist with the EPA, says Mr. Gould's
analysis i "of interest " and "should be evaluated on its
merits." Dr. Donald Luria, chairman of the New Jersey Medical
School's department of preventive medicin and community health
says, "You cannot look at this blip on the data base an say 'So
what?'" After a negative initial reaction to Mr. Gould's
hypothesis Dr. Luria said, "I've been persuaded that there is
enough there to merit a good look. It would be unwise to treat
Gould's findings dismissively, and equally unwise to
overinterpret them." Mr. Gould can be reached at (202) 234-9382.
--Peter Montague, Ph.D.
Descriptor terms: death statistics; death; health; health statistics; radiation; nuclear power; chernobyl; ussr; data; national center for health statistics; pneumonia; fallout; iodine; irradiation; infectious disease; marvin lavenhar; studies; findings; jay gould; institute for policy studies; iodine-131; ca; wa; az; ernest sternglass; neal nelson; epa; donald luria; physicians;