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Piketon Radiation Scare Prompts Call For Cancer Study

Zahn's Middle School in Piketon was closed amid concerns about radioactive contaminants.
Nick Evans
Zahn's Middle School in Piketon was closed amid concerns about radioactive contaminants.

Radiation concerns have closed a school in southern Ohio despite federal officials’ insistence that the amount of detected materials aren’t a public health concern. However, the county’s cancer rates are among the highest in the state.

Zahn's Middle School closed this week, before the end of the school year, after tests found traces of radioactive particles nearby. The school sits just a few miles from the former Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, which produced enriched uranium for weapons systems, and is in the process of being decommissioned.

According to the Ohio Health Department’s 2019 Cancer Atlas, Pike County’s cancer incidence rate is the second-highest in the state at more than 500 cases per 100,000 residents. That's about 10 percent higher than the statewide rate.

Neighboring Scioto County is tied for the fifth-highest rate in Ohio. But factors that contribute to cancer - such as tobacco use, physical inactivity or obesity - tend to be higher in the region, too.

Elected officials report that five students in the last five years have contracted cancer while attending local schools.

Pike County Health Commissioner Matt Brewster says while many residents have stories about cancer, he and other officials need more refined data to connect cases to the nearby uranium enrichment plant.

“There hasn’t been, to my knowledge—and I’ve looked a lot—an in-depth cancer study in our region, in Pike County, or within five miles of the A-plant," Brewster says.

Cancer rates at the county level are relatively easy to find, but Brewster needs more granular data before pointing fingers to any specific cause. Brewster says his office is working with an epidemiologist to conduct that study—they’re just ironing out the parameters.

“I think at this point we need to look at all ages, because you know, just based on social media there, there are story after story of not just cancers but rare cancers,” he says.

Brewster is confident people in the area will participate, but he notes tracking down residents who have moved away after the plant’s closure could prove challenging.

Nick Evans was a reporter at WOSU's 89.7 NPR News. He spent four years in Tallahassee, Florida covering state government before joining the team at WOSU.