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Facts Regarding Claims in 'Shirley' Memoir and 'Atomic States' Film

Kelly McMaster's 2008 book, "Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town" presents an often-inaccurate depiction of Brookhaven Lab, its environmental cleanup, and health issues on Long Island. “The Atomic States of America,” a 2012 film based in part on McMasters’ memoir, repeats several of the book’s claims. The following responds to some of the claims in the memoir and/or movie.

Claim: Cancer clusters surround Brookhaven Lab. For many of these cancers, including breast cancer, the only proven cause is exposure to low-level radiation.

The Facts: The book and movie use anecdotes, innuendo, and selective information to imply that the Laboratory is responsible for an increase in cancer rates. They do not mention two independent studies of cancer rates that found no relationship between Brookhaven Lab and cancer.

According to a 1998 report by the Suffolk County Environmental Task Force on Brookhaven National Laboratory, which looked at rates within a 15-mile radius of BNL, "cancer rates of all types of cancers [the task force] studied are not elevated near BNL" for the years 1979-93. Task Force Chairman Roger Grimson, a biostatistician and an associate professor at Stony Brook University, concluded in a January 23, 1998, Newsday article, "There is no link between Brookhaven National Lab and cancer."

Regarding breast cancer, the study found that, compared to the rest of Long Island, rates were rising significantly, and more quickly, on the Island's East End, on both the North and South Forks. As Newsday reported: "Concerning breast cancer, Grimson said, the study does not implicate Brookhaven National Laboratory or any other particular facility or cause and noted that the breast cancer rate in the area immediately surrounding the lab is lower than on the North and South Forks."

An assessment of cancer in BNL workers conducted by the New York State Department of Health in 2001 (see full report [PDF]) concluded that the overall distribution of cancers in past and present Laboratory employees for whom data were available is similar to the patterns of cancers found in three comparison populations: residents of upstate New York, those living in Nassau, and those residing in Suffolk. "Of particular note," commented the author of the assessment report, Maria Schymura, Director of the New York State Department of Health Cancer Registry, is the fact that solid cancers that could be the result of radiation exposure "were not proportionally elevated" in the BNL population.

Claim: An epidemic of a rare childhood cancer, rhabdomyosarcoma, has been identified within a 15-mile radius of Brookhaven National Lab. The only known cause of this cancer is exposure to low-level radiation.

The Facts: When this concern was brought to the attention of county and state agencies in the mid-90s, they conducted several investigations to look into rhabdomyosarcoma rates in the area. No clusters or links to BNL were found.

In 1998, a study released by the Suffolk County Environmental Task Force, a group that included some of the Laboratory's most ardent critics, found "there is no statistical evidence showing higher than normal rates in either Suffolk County or a 15-mile radius of the Lab. In fact, there were fewer cases of rhabdomyosarcoma in Suffolk County from 1979 through 1993 than there were on average in other New York State counties, including Nassau, Brooklyn and Queens." According to the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH), for each million people under age 19, rhabdomyosarcoma occurred annually at a rate of 4.1 cases in Suffolk, 5.3 statewide, 5.6 in Nassau, 6.4 in Queens and 7.0 in Brooklyn. McMasters' book also states that the "only" cause of rhabdomyosarcoma is exposure to low-level radiation. In reality, published risk factors cited on the American Cancer Society (ACS) website include five specific inherited medical conditions, with no mention of low-level radiation exposure. ACS also states that there are "no environmental factors (such as exposures during the mother's pregnancy or in early childhood) that are known to increase the chance of getting rhabdomyosarcoma."

A November 14, 2002, article in Newsday reported that "An analysis of rhabdomyosarcoma rates by the state health department has found that the rate in central Suffolk, where the laboratory is located, does not differ significantly from rates in eastern and western Suffolk, and that Suffolk's overall rate does not differ significantly from the rest of the state."

In 2000, the Suffolk County Legislature formed a Rhabdomyosarcoma Task Force to investigate whether there was a cluster of rhabdomyosarcoma cases in the Smithtown, Long Island area and to survey Suffolk County residents to determine if additional cases could be identified that were missing from the NY State cancer registry. According to task force documents, it was formed after Manorville resident Randy Snell (a member of the task force) said he had heard through word of mouth about several cases in the Smithtown area.  After a significant amount of research and outreach to local residents, the final report from the task force, issued in 2005, concluded that “the efforts of the Rhabdomyosarcoma Task Force, together with the assistance of the NYSDOH, was unable to yield any additional evidence that either a clustering of childhood Rhabdomyosarcoma cases occurred around Smithtown or that the cases of childhood Rhabdomyosarcoma reported in the NY State Cancer Registry undercounted the number of cases in Suffolk County during the 1979-1998 time period.”

Claim: Residents south of the Lab in Shirley have been exposed to chemicals in groundwater, and that is why DOE provided public water hookups to area residents.

The Facts: In the early 1990s, off-site chemical groundwater contamination - related to Camp Upton and the Lab's historical use of solvents to clean metals - was discovered south of the site. The Suffolk County Department of Health Services tested more than 800 private wells and found no contamination attributable to BNL - a finding that was confirmed by Newsday's yearlong investigative series in 1998 on the Lab's environmental impact. As a precautionary measure, the Department of Energy funded the connection of more than 1,500 homes south and east of BNL to public water supplies.

As part of the groundwater investigation and cleanup, the Lab installed more than 3,000 temporary and permanent groundwater monitoring wells to accurately determine the nature and extent of the contamination. Seventeen treatment systems were installed between 1997 and 2012 and are operating to effectively remove solvents and similar chemicals from groundwater on and off the Lab site.

Claim: Brookhaven Lab is funded primarily by the Department of Defense.

The Facts: McMasters repeats this claim several times in the book. The Department of Defense (DOD) also funded the Long Island Breast Cancer Study, and she repeatedly implies that this supposed conflict of interest explains why the study's results were inconclusive with regard to breast cancer causes. She also insinuates that the Lab prospers from sales of breast cancer postal stamps, since a portion of the proceeds go to DOD.

In reality, the vast majority of BNL's funding comes from DOE's Office of Science. In fiscal year 2012, DOD funding represented 0.4 percent (less than one-half of one percent) of the Lab's overall budget. Over the past 15 years, DOD funding of BNL averaged 0.6 percent, with a high of 1.5 percent in 2005. Prior to 1997, DOD funding was never higher than 3 percent of the total BNL budget.

Claim: There is radioactive tritium in off-site groundwater.

The Facts: McMasters has stated that Brookhaven has contaminated all of Long Island’s drinking water with radioactive tritium. This is not true.

McMasters bases this claim on references to an “off-site tritium plume” in publicly available cleanup documents. Low levels of tritium from the Laboratory have been historically detected in groundwater immediately south and east of the Laboratory. The highest level ever detected, measured in one off-site monitoring well in 1985, was 25,000 picocuries per liter (the drinking water standard is 20,000 picocuries per liter). The maximum seen in off-site monitoring wells in recent years is less than four percent of the drinking water standard.

The low levels of tritium seen in groundwater adjacent to the Lab site pose no health risk to our employees, visitors, or neighbors.

Tritium found in on-site groundwater in 1996 from the spent fuel pool at the Lab’s High Flux Beam Reactor has not moved from the center of the site.

Claim: Brookhaven Lab is a secretive place, closed to the public.

The Facts: McMasters makes this claim in both the book and movie. In reality, Brookhaven Lab is an active member of the Long Island community that seeks input and feedback on its operations, is open to the public for many lectures, tours, and cultural events, and offers educational programs to tens of thousands of students each year.

The Brookhaven Lab Community Advisory Council (CAC) is a cornerstone of the Lab’s outreach and engagement efforts. It was formed in 1998 to advise the Laboratory Director on issues of interest to local residents, particularly in areas related to environment, safety, and health. The CAC, which meets monthly, represents a diverse range of interests and values of individuals and groups who are interested in or affected by the actions of the Laboratory, and includes representatives from 28 local civic, education, environment, employee, and health organizations. It has been held up as a model of citizen engagement across the Department of Energy complex.

In addition, each year Brookhaven Lab holds a series of “Summer Sunday” open houses, where thousands of community members and the general public visit a different science facility each week, engage with researchers, and participate in fun and educational science-related activities. The Laboratory also runs a tour program for thousands of elected officials, members of industry, college students, and community groups each year that is tailored to individual interests.

Educating the next generation of scientists and engineers is another aspect of the Laboratory’s mission. Each year, the Laboratory welcomes more than 40,000 K-12, undergraduate, and graduate students and teachers to participate in science, technology, engineering, and math programs, contests, and internships.


Last Modified: October 8, 2012