In August 2017, a years-old video excerpt from a presentation by “independent scientist” and conspiracy theorist Leuren Moret went viral on Facebook. In the short clip, Moret claimed that the relatively high rates of diabetes found in poor and ethnic minority communities in the United States are caused by the deliberate shipment of radioactive milk to those communities as part of a U.S. government policy of genocide against black Americans:
Why do [poor and ethnic minority communities in New York] have much higher rates of diabetes than the rest of the affluent part of New York City? The answer is that we discovered, after Chernobyl, that the state milk boards are taking the most contaminated radioactive milk from dairies near nuclear power plants and they’re shipping that into black, inner-city communities where it’s sold in the mom and pop stores … U.S. national policy is to genocide the black communities with radiation.
The video clip was originally disseminated to Facebook in April 2015 via the Indigengine page, and a month later it was also posted by Your Black Reality. The latter instance of the video experienced an explosion of Facebook shares in August and September 2017.
Although it has proved popular, Moret’s claim lacks both a scientific basis and supporting evidence and is false on a number of levels. Its largest scientific misstep is one as old as time: offering mere correlation as support for an untenable hypothesis.
Black Americans and Type II Diabetes
African-American adults do have higher rates of diabetes than the general population. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the prevalence of diabetes is 9.4 percent among American adults overall, but 12.7 percent among black American adults. Although the increased risk for Type II diabetes among non-Latino black men and women is well known and robustly documented, complete explanations for the relationship are lacking.
Scientists agree that both biological and socioeconomic factors are likely at play. One partial explanation is that men and women of African descent appear to differ from other ethnicities in the ways in which their bodies metabolize glucose and regulate its levels, according to a 2012 review of the topic:
The higher prevalence of type 2 diabetes in minorities compared with [non hispanic white] populations is partially attributable to differences in glucose metabolism and homeostasis. Compared with their [non hispanic white] counterparts and independent of [body fat, non hispanic blacks] have greater hyperinsulinemia [an elevated amount of insulin in the blood relative to glucose] and insulin resistance [a reduced ability for insulin to affect glucose levels].
Scientists have considered a number of social factors to explain the difference as well, such as access to health care, availability of healthy foods, household status, and others. A 2015 study conducted by researchers with the National Minority Quality Forum, described on their web site as a “research and educational organization dedicated to ensuring that high-risk racial and ethnic populations and communities receive optimal health care”, noted that although numerous adverse health factors may apply to everyone living in America’s poorest neighborhoods (regardless of one’s ethnicity), black Americans are more likely to reside in such areas:
Among Black adults aged >45 years at baseline, residence in the most deprived neighborhoods significantly increased odds of obesity, high blood pressure, lower HDL-cholesterol, elevated fasting glucose and markers of inflammation. White adults living in these neighborhoods also had increased likelihood of several cardiometabolic risk factors. However, Blacks were roughly four times more likely to live in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods than Whites.
Moret’s assertion that radioactive milk explains differing rates of diabetes ignores myriad other racial disparities in health outcomes that likely could not be answered with one single, milk-based hypothesis. A famous 2006 paper nicknamed the “Eight Americas” study divided the country into eight ethno-sociographic groups (Asians, northland low-income rural whites, Middle America, low-income whites in Appalachia and the Mississippi Valley, western Native Americans, black Middle America, low-income southern rural blacks, and high-risk urban blacks) and investigated the disparities in health care and mortality between these populations. The group which Moret’s map of New York highlights includes poor, urban, and predominantly black neighborhoods that would fall into that study’s “high-risk urban blacks” grouping, and the “Eight Americas” study found that within this group, young and middle-aged members faced the largest health disparities when compared to the most affluent groups. The study noted multiple varied types and causes of such disparities:
The major mortality gradients in these age groups are observed for injuries, cardiovascular diseases, and other noncommunicable causes such as liver cirrhosis and diabetes. Injuries are especially important for the observed mortality gradients between the ages of 15 and 44.
If radioactive milk were the cause of diabetes, is it also the cause of physical injuries and cardiovascular disease? Moret provided no mechanism to explain the myriad other factors that increase early mortality in these communities, which are also equally correlated with the geographic and racial disparities she speaks of. It would be a challenging argument to suggest that radioactive milk is the cause of each and every one of them, or, conversely, that it affects only one aspect of these neighborhoods’ health outcomes.
Radioactive Milk in the Inner Cities
Despite a veritable smorgasbord of potential explanations for higher rates of diabetes in poor urban black communities, Moret decided to go with radioactive milk as an explanation for the relationship. This is an enigmatic choice for several reasons, albeit one that makes a grain of sense when one considers that Moret’s main cause is fearmongering about nuclear power.
Regardless, the radioactive milk hypothesis fails on both scientific and historical grounds. It is unclear in the brief video clip exactly what Moret is talking about with respect to shipments to inner cities of contaminated milk from areas ambiguously “near” nuclear power plants, but an article published on her web site seems to hint at a 1930s farm program as evidence, though the article provides no sourcing for it:
It so happened that there existed a federal program for controlling the shipment of most of the milk in the nation from farms to the consumers in the cities that had been developed in the 1930s in order to protect the income of farmers when the milk from their farms occasionally did not taste well.
The program forced wholesalers who bought the milk to pay the normal price, even when on some occasions there was a problem with the quality of the milk, which could be diluted with the milk from other areas that did not have such a problem. Dilution of the poorly tasting milk with milk from other farms was therefore believed to be a way to solve the problem.
What Moret (who did not respond to our request for clarification) seems to be talking about is the Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act of 1937. Part of the intent behind this act was to stabilize pricing in the milk market and ensure a constant supply of milk, which at the time was subject to major transportation losses, price fixing through unregulated farmers’ co-ops, worker strikes, and inconsistent quality. What Moret is likely referencing is the legal classification between Grade I raw milk (which can be used in the production of actual milk for human consumption), and Grade II raw milk (which can be used for animal feed or in cheese and other secondary products).
For a variety of reasons, the law essentially turned the entire federal milk market into a co-op, whereby dairy farmers split revenues from the sales of both grades of milk evenly as a way of sustaining regular prices and eliminating waste. What the law did not include was anything about the transportation of low quality milk to the inner cities, but Moret nonetheless, makes this claim of it:
Thus, [the law makes it] possible to direct milk shipments from farms close to nuclear plants into the inner city areas where few White people lived, in the hope that dilution at the dairies and processing facilities would make any adverse effects on human health statistically undetectable.
Although the law may have further facilitated the mixing of milk from different geographic areas, nothing Moret writes in her argument provides any semblance of support for the notion that large quantities of milk are being transported from areas near nuclear reactors to the inner cities — in large part because no such evidence exists, and in small part because it represents a gross misunderstanding of the law’s intent and effect.
Using a vague description of an agricultural law meant to aid dairy farmers which was passed long before nuclear power plants existed, Moret argues that an incidental discovery of radioactive iodine in milk potentially linked to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 offers clear evidence of a concerted effort to transport radioactive milk to America’s inner cities. To make this argument, she cites reporting published in a controversial 1990 book titled Deadly Deceit: Low-level Radiation, High-level Cover-Up:
When the authors [of Deadly Deceit] examined the reported levels of Iodine–131 [a radioactive byproduct of fission reactions] in the milk in May and August 1986 for seven cities along the east-coast from Baltimore, Maryland down to Norfolk, Virginia, the highest levels of Iodine–131 were found in Washington in the District of Columbia both for May and August, followed by Baltimore […].
But as the authors point out, it is unlikely that the high concentrations of Iodine–131 in Washington and Baltimore, more than twice as high as for the other cities, could be explained solely by the fallout from Chernobyl. First of all, the highest levels of Iodine–131 measured in the rain in May of 1986 was reported for Virginia, whereas the levels measured in the milk in Virginia were less than half of those in Washington and Baltimore.
Secondly, the level of Iodine–131, which is only produced by nuclear fission, continued to be highest in August 1986, three months after the fallout from Chernobyl arrived, so that with its short half-life of about one week it should have been completely undetectable 12 weeks later. But most importantly is the fact that since there are no dairy cows in the small District of Columbia in which Washington is located as well as no nuclear reactors.
There is no way that the high concentration of iodine-131 in the Washington milk could be explained by anything else than extraordinarily high levels in the milk shipped into the city, due to emissions from the nuclear reactors in the surrounding states with high levels persisting through August.
Here would be a good place to point out that, in fact, very few dairy farms exist in any urban settings due to the rural environment such farms by necessity must inhabit. As such, it is nearly a given that milk will be shipped from somewhere else to cities.
Moret’s only evidence of targeted radioactive milk shipments to the inner cities, then, is that in August 1986 two cities with larger relative black populations than other east coast cities (Baltimore and Washington, D.C.), had higher levels of radiation in their milk. Yet she provides no documentation showing an intentional shipment of more radioactive milk to specific neighborhoods within any of these cities, even though that claim is her primary thesis.
Additionally, radioactivity in milk is regularly tested as part of the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Total Diet Study, which carefully monitors foodstuffs for a range of potentially harmful substances, including radionuclides. If evidence for Moret’s conspiracy theory existed, would it surely not be found more conclusively in these data and not in a single data point from August 1986?
We analyzed the results of the Total Diet Study from 1992-2005 and 2006-2014, but we turned up not a single instance of milk’s containing radionuclide levels that even came close to levels that the FDA considers to be potentially harmful.
Could Radioactive Milk Cause Diabetes?
The final problem with Moret’s argument is the connection between low-level radiation and diabetes. Though Moret makes great pains to suggest the hazards of low-level radiation have been intentionally minimized by the government, diabetes has been linked to radiation exposure in only a few groups, such as animals exposed to heavy and acute amounts of radiation, or childhood cancer survivors who underwent radiation treatment earlier in their lives; both groups were exposed to radiation at levels that are much higher than would be found in milk. In response to our queries, the American Diabetes Association told us that they “are unaware of any link between radiation and diabetes at any levels of radiation that would regularly be encountered in the U.S.”
Moret uses the disparity in health outcomes between impoverished, inner-city black Americans and other populations (arguably one of the most pressing healthcare injustices facing the United States) to push a conspiracy theory against nuclear power that lacks both evidence and logic. As such, we rank this claim as false.