Study links uranium exposure to four times higher lupus rate - Cincinnati News, FOX19-WXIX TV

Study links uranium exposure to higher lupus rate

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According to University of Cincinnati researchers, people living close to the former uranium ore processing facility in Crosby Township are experiencing a higher than average rate of lupus. The study was a collaboration between University of Cincinnati researchers and Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.

"It just proves that our fight for 26 years was worth it," Crosby Township resident Edwa Yocum told FOX19.

Yocum's back bedroom is filled with boxes of files documenting the FRESH, or Fernald Residents for Environmental Safety and Health, fight for justice for the local community.

"You don't run from problems, you fix them," argued Yocum.

Now a great-grandmother, the source of Yocum's fight can be found in the faces that line her shelves.

"Any mother knows that when her kids are being hurt in one way another, look out," she said.

Yocum's great-grandchildren will never see the production center that was the center of controversy. Instead, their generation sees only the nature preserve that sits in its place.

"We all started working together and starting solving the problem in a balanced approach," Yocum said of the collaboration between the community and the Department of Energy.

 The story of Fernald's uranium production during the Cold War now lives on the walls of the museum inside the nature preserve's visitors center.

"It makes you stop and sort of think again, what you have accomplished," Yocum said.

Yet on the medical front, Yucum knows there are still many questions to be answered, and that answering those questions it bittersweet knowing that it may take sickness to bring understanding.

"Their information helped us come to this conclusion and they ought to be proud," Yocum said of the residents who offered their medical information used in the recent study.

She says the study gives her more comfort that the data from the medical monitoring program is being used wisely.

Researchers say extensive review of medical records and serum antibody analysis to verify the cases, concluded that people who were exposed to higher levels of uranium, based on their living proximity to a former uranium ore processing plant, had lupus rates four times higher than the average population.

"Former studies have suggested that people with lupus may be more sensitive to radiation and that both genetics and environmental exposures play a role in disease development. Our study shows a strong correlation between uranium exposure, a radioactive substance, and an increased lupus rate that merits further investigation," says Pai-Yue Lu, MD, a pediatric rheumatology fellow at Cincinnati Children's and lead researcher for the study. 

"With more research in this area, we may gain additional insight on the types of environmental factors that contribute to lupus development and the mechanisms by which they work," Lu adds. "There could be other effects of uranium and related exposures that could contribute to or help explain our findings."

Lupus is a chronic inflammatory disease that can affect the skin, joints, kidneys, lungs, nervous system and other organs of the body. The underlying causes of lupus are unknown and it's more common in women. 

The Cincinnati-based team's research is based on nearly two decades of data collected through the Fernald Medical Monitoring Program, the United States' first and largest legally mandated comprehensive medical monitoring program. The program was established in 1990 after a federal investigation revealed that National Lead of Ohio's Feed Materials Production Center in the Hamilton County, Ohio, community of Fernald, was emitting dangerous levels of uranium dust and gases into the surrounding communities. 

"The availability of this cohort and carefully collected data and biospecimens provides a great setting to ask research questions," says Susan Pinney, PhD, UC professor of environmental health and principal investigator of the Fernald study. 

Nearly 10,000 community residents enrolled in the Fernald Medical Monitoring Program. Community residents were classified into several exposure groups: high exposure, moderate exposure, low exposure and no exposure. Researchers say Uranium plant workers were not part of the study.

"Typical U.S. incidence rates for lupus are 1.8 to 7.6 cases per 100,000. Among the 25 confirmed lupus cases we identified through the Fernald community cohort, 12 were in the high exposure group, eight with moderate exposure and five in the low exposure group," says Lu.

The research was supported by a pilot grant from a Center for Environmental Genetics, a National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences-funded program to support core facilities and technologies needed to conduct innovative research that focuses on how environmental agents interact with genetic and epigenetic factors to influence disease risk and outcome.

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