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Chronic stress still lingers near TMI.

Several years ago, researchers discovered a mild but nagging stress reaction among some people living near the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant (SN: 5/8/82, p. 308). The stress appeared to be linked to a sense of uncertainty following the 1979 TMI accident.

The same investigators now report that a significant portion of a sample of people living within 5 miles of TMI experienced persistent, low-level stress five years after the 1979 incident. Their stress includes psychological as well as physiological symptoms that could lead to hypertension and other cardiovascular disorders, and the researchers.

"We didn't [find] the extreme 'posttraumatic stress disorder' associated with Vietnam verterans," psychologist Andrew Baum of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md., said last weel at the annual meeting of the American Psychosomatic Society in Washington, D.C. "But our data suggest that someone who experiences chronic levels of stress that are still in the normal range may also have post-traumatic stress."

Baum and his colleagues examined 52 TMI area residents and 35 people living 80 miles from the power plant. Subjects completed a questionnaire containing scales for two major characteristics of post-traumatic stress disorder -- avoidance (diminished interest in outside activities, detachment from others) and intrusive thoughts (recurrent, disturbing thoughts and dreams about a traumatic event). Reported levels of intrusive thoughts were significantly higher among the TMI residents.

The researchers split the TMI group in half based on these scores; subjects in the upper half reported more physical complaints, problems with interpersonal relationships, depression, anxiety, anger, fear, suspicion and alienation than those in the lower half. In addition, subjects with higher scores had higher blood pressure and increased amounts of urinary norepinephrine and cortisol. These hormones are secreted in response to nervous arousal and tend to elevate good pressure, says Baum. Intrusive thoughts were closely related to these symptoms, he observes, because TMI residents are exposed to constant reminders of the 1979 accident, including the ever-present power plant stacks and continuing media coverage. Avoidance behavior was less strongly associated with emotional and physical stress symptoms.

Since beginning their research in 1980, the Maryland researchers have studied an estimated 85 TMI area residents. About 40 percent report chronic, mild stress; 30 percent fluctuate between periods of stress and calm; and another 30 percent report no stress effects. At this point, however, it is impossible to tell whether stress reactions will lead to a higher incidence of physical problems such as hypertension, cautions Baum. "None of the subjects we studied

is in immediate physical or emotional trouble," he says.

But preliminary data released by the same researchers last week suggest that the number of disease-fighting lymphocytes may be dropping among TMI area residents with chronic stress. As with the previous findings, says Baum, a larger sample is needed before any conclusions can be drawn.
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Title Annotation:Three Mile Island
Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Date:Apr 6, 1985
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