new cluster of childhood leukaemia in north Wales

Low Level Radiation Campaign briefing
TV researcher in United Kingdom finds new cluster of childhood cancers and leukaemia far worse than Seascale

Credibility of present radiation protection standards is weaker than ever.
Massive implications for litigation and nuclear regulation.

Twenty years ago a TV programme revealed the existence of the now notorious cluster of childhood leukaemia at Seascale near Sellafield, the British nuclear reprocessing plant. This was "Windscale the Nuclear Laundry", made by James Cutler of Yorkshire Television. The ensuing political storm resulted in the Black Committee, whose report recommended a new committee - COMARE (Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment)

Now a researcher from HTV has found another cluster around the radioactively contaminated Menai Strait, which lies between the island of Anglesey and north Wales. The cluster is more severe than Seascale and its statistical strength is far greater. Like YTV, HTV has identified the children involved and has interviewed them and their parents in a documentary which was broadcast on the Welsh language channel S4C on 10th February.

In the seaside town of Caernarfon leukaemia in the 0 - 14 year old age group is 28 times the UK national average (compared with Seascale's 12-fold excess).

The excess risk is not confined to the town of Caernarfon. In the 34 wards (see footnote on "wards") surrounding the Menai Strait there were 6 cases of leukaemia in the 0-4 age group between 2000-2003, a Relative Risk (RR) of 7.8. Between 1996 and 2003 there were 9 cases of brain and spinal cancer; RR = 5.4. The cancers include 3 cases of the rare eye cancer retinoblastoma on Anglesey. All are teenagers. In Conwy (another seaside town) there are two further cases, both under ten years old. Caernarfon has a further case, a child born in 1999 and diagnosed at age 3. Retinoblastoma has been associated with radioactivity since the Seascale cluster of leukaemia is accompanied by a 20-fold excess of retinoblastoma in children of Sellafield workers. The relative risks for retinoblastoma in the HTV research are uncertain because so far we only have one of the diagnosis dates, but a conservative calculation shows that excess risks for the area, compared with average rates, are between 5 and 15-times (this covers separate calculations for Anglesey and the whole of the county of Gwynedd).
The statistical significance of all the results is high, so this is not a chance occurrence (for the detail see the report itself).

In political and legal terms this discovery is highly significant. COMARE has investigated the Seascale cluster and has repeatedly advised that on "current knowledge" of the relationship between radiation and leukaemia, the level of dose local people were exposed to should not have caused so many cases. However, the "current knowledge" which COMARE cited is the models used by the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP), and these have been widely criticised for being too reliant on studies of the effects of acute high dose external radiation.
In January 2002 the European Committee on Radiation Risk (www.euradcom.eu) published a volume of advice which modifies ICRP models to correct for their shortcomings in respect of low dose exposure. The ECRR has addressed a number of types of exposure where the main hazard is internal. New weighting factors address specific hazards from isotopes with sequential decay pathways, hot and warm particles, isotopes which bind to DNA, and isotopes which change their chemical nature upon radioactive decay. Such exposures are radically different from acute high dose external radiation.
The final report of a new UK Government committee, the Committee Examining Radiation Risk from Internal Emitters (CERRIE), is expected this year. CERRIE was set up in 2001 in an attempt to resolve the outstanding scientific disagreements in this area, including newly described effects such as genomic instability (or at least to explain the disagreements in language which policy makers can understand).

The discovery of the new cancer cluster in Wales therefore stands in the context of large uncertainty about the degree of health hazard from radioactivity in the environment. It also adds to the wide range of observable effects which ICRP cannot account for; other examples are the increase in childhood leukaemia at the time of above-ground weapons testing in the 1950s and '60s, the sharp peak in infant leukaemia after Chernobyl, many localised clusters including Seascale itself, the other reprocessing plants and nuclear power stations, and a wide range of diseases following exposure of soldiers and civilians to depleted Uranium dust. This email briefing has been prepared for the many people around the world who have particular interests such as campaigning against the use of DU, or offering legal advice to ex-service men and women, or the decontamination of nuclear sites, or the decommissioning of nuclear plant, or the safe handling of low level wastes and recyclable materials. The basic message is that the Menai cluster is an extremely significant piece of evidence suggesting that it was unwise for COMARE to rely on ICRP's advice to deny a causal link between radioactivity and the Seascale cluster. If ICRP is this seriously flawed it is useless for predicting the effects of any low dose exposure where people's bodies are put at risk of internal contamination. There are massive implications for litigation and many aspects of nuclear regulation.


Click here for list of local health bodies who ought to be concerned
Wards
It has been pointed out to us that outside the British Isles the word "ward" is not well understood. Apologies for any confusion.
Wards are local administrative areas for the purpose of conducting elections and censuses. This usage is common in Britain and the USA.
In Britain each ward defines a population of about 2000 people. This is the smallest unit for which officially collected population statistics are commonly available. The figures are updated in censuses conducted every ten years since 1841 (or maybe earlier)
Urban wards cover small geographical areas, rural wards may be many square kilometers in extent.
Thus in small towns on the coast (there are many in Wales) the whole population lives near the sea (within a kilometer), but in rural coastal wards many of the people live distant from the sea.
The towns show the highest cancer and leukaemia risks and this difference in Relative Risks supports the hypothesis that it is proximity to the sea that drives the incidence of disease.

References

1 Chris Busby, PhD Nuclear pollution, childhood leukaemia, retinoblastoma and brain tumours in Gwynedd and Anglesey Wards near the Menai Straits, North Wales 2000-2003 For HTV Bangor Report 04/1; January 2004 Aberystwyth: Green Audit Get the report (as a pdf file 127 Kb)


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