Tooth Fairy Project
|Splitting more than hairs|
The Tooth Fairy Project is a pseudoscientific research project undertaken by an anti-nuclear organization called Radiation and Public Health Project. It intends to demonstrate that routine emissions of very small amounts of radioactivity from nuclear power plants have a measurable impact on the health of people living near those facilities. The project's activities are supported by the movie star Alec Baldwin and some other misguided celebrities.
The study involves collecting the deciduous teeth of babies, both those which were shed recently and those saved as a memoir by parents, The date of birth and the location where the child was carried to term and raised is recorded. The activity of strontium-90 in teeth is measured, and an attempt is made to find a correlation with the location of nuclear power plants. Several non-peer-reviewed papers were released by the project, with all of them claiming an increased level of strontium-90 in baby teeth, and postulating increased cancer risks for people living near nuclear facilities.
The parent organization received a donation of baby teeth collected by a legitimate long term study in the years 1958-1970, which investigated the uptake and health effects of strontium-90 from atmospheric nuclear testing. The relevance of this data set to the project's central claim is extremely tenuous, as most of the strontium-90 accumulated in those teeth can be expected to originate from nuclear weapons testing.
Why it is bogus
More than 99% of strontium-90 in the environment comes from atmospheric nuclear testing fallout from the 1950s and early 1960s. Strontium emissions from nuclear power plants are very low — at or below detection levels. Note that radioactive substances are often used as tracers precisely because they can be detected at extremely low concentrations using relatively simple equipment, so this is not because the released strontium is hard to detect - there just isn't any. The total radiation dose (strontium, iodine, xenon, etc.) from routine emissions by nuclear power plants is about 0.003% (0.01 mrem/year for nuclear plants vs. 300 mrem/year natural background radiation) of the natural background radiation dose.
In addition to this common sense argument, there are several more specific flaws in the studies. Here are the ones identified by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission:
- Inadequate control populations or lack of them.
- No consideration of risk factors other than strontium.
- Very small sample sizes used to draw general conclusions.
- Data that did not fit the pre-determined conclusions were considered artifacts and excluded from further analysis.
- The wrong half-life was used for strontium-90.
What real science says
The definitive large-scale study on cancer near nuclear facilities in the US was conducted by the National Cancer Institute and completed in 1991. It found that the relative risk of living in US counties that had nuclear facilities dropped by a non-significant amount after the facilities were started; nuclear displaces fossil fuels, emissions of which are less healthy and more radioactive than nuclear. Overall it found no evidence of an increase in cancer mortality. The facilities investigated included power plants, DoE research and weapons sites and a fuel reprocessing plant. A similar study in 1987 in the UK found the same conclusion; the exception was childhood leukemia, but its increased incidence cannot be attributed to excess radiation. There is credible evidence that suggests that migrations to newly formed service towns and the associated rise in infections are the real cause of the childhood leukemia increase.
- The name makes it painfully obvious, doesn't it?
- Alec Baldwin: The Human Costs of Nuclear Power
- United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About Radiation Protection
- NRC: Backgrounder on Radiation Protection and the "Tooth Fairy" Issue — review of the organization's studies
- "the RR of mortality from childhood leukemia after plant start-up was 1.03, while before start-up it was larger, 1.08. For leukemia mortality at all ages, the RRs were 0.98 after start-up and 1.02 before."
- NCI: No Excess Mortality Risk Found in Counties with Nuclear Facilities
- "On the contrary, the mortality from cancer has tended to be lower in the LAAs in the vicinity of nuclear installations than in control LAAs selected for their presumed comparability with the former."
- Forman, David; Cook-Mozaffari, Paula; Darby, Sarah; Davey, Gwyneth; Stratton, Irene; Doll, Richard; Pike, Malcolm (1987-10-08). "Cancer near nuclear installations" (in en). Nature 329 (6139): 499–505.
- Kinlen LJ, Epidemiological evidence for an infective basis in childhood leukaemia (Full text PDF)
- Kinlen LJ, Balkwill A, Infective cause of childhood leukaemia and wartime population mixing in Orkney and Shetland, UK