First in-depth report near NFS facility finds dramatic rises in Unicoi County death rates
By the Radiation and Public Health Project
Since the 1990s, death rates for cancers and other causes in Unicoi County, Tennessee increased dramatically, according to a new report.
Prior to the late 1990s, Unicoi County death rates were about equal to the overall U.S. rate. But by the most recent period available (2019-2020), the county rate exceeded the national rate by the largest proportion in the past fifty years, specifically:
– 44% higher for all-cause mortality
– 61% higher for premature mortality (age 0-74)
– 39% higher for all-cancer mortality
The report says that the release of radioactive chemicals to the environment by the Nuclear Fuel Services (NFS) facility may play a large role in the local health decline. The NFS complex is situated in Erwin, Tennessee in Unicoi County. “No other risk factor, such as access to health care, personal health practices, or poverty appears to have changed much,” said report author Joseph Mangano of the Radiation and Public Health Project. Since its 1959 startup, it has generated enriched uranium fuels for naval and civil nuclear power reactors. NFS releases a portion of this uranium and other radioactive elements into local air and water. “NFS sits within the limits of Erwin, Tenn., next to homes, churches, and businesses. It has had numerous spills, releases, and violations,” says Barbara O’Neal, co-founder of Erwin Citizens Awareness Network (ECAN), which commissioned the study.
Prior to the new report, the only national study of cancer near U.S. nuclear installations was conducted by the National Cancer Institute in 1990. That study did not include NFS.
The new report further identified a growing county-national gap in death rates for infants and children. In the most recent period analyzed, the death rate for children in Unicoi County exceeded the U.S. national rate by nearly 40%. ECAN co-founder Trudy Wallack told Joe Mangano of Radiation and Public Health: “as a resident of Greeneville, the protection and safety of the Nolichucky River stands paramount to my community and others. This river serves as the key source for our drinking water as well as family recreation and water sports. It is my hope that my contribution to this study will provide critical information regarding health…to all those who care and are asking questions.”