BBC puts Busby head-to-head with NRPB's Michael Clark

BBC puts Busby head-to-head with NRPB's Michael Clark
in a discussion on the leukaemia cluster in Chepstow

You and Yours BBC Radio 4 (UK) 17th May 2001 12 noon.
Top story: Leukaemia cluster at Chepstow.

BBC: Chepstow sits across the River Severn from Oldbury nuclear power station. Dr Busby's report also claims that there is an increased risk of many other kinds of cancer for all those people living along the Severn Estuary. But opponents criticise his findings as "merely the work of an amateur" from a pressure group. We'll be discussing the findings in a few minutes. First though, we've been to the home of Sue and Alan Langford; their son Stephen was diagnosed as having myeloid leukaemia twelve years ago - it's one of the rarest forms of the disease. The Langfords live in Chepstow, within sight of the power station.

Alan Langford: Oldbury power station is up there beyond the old Severn Bridge. On a clear day you can see right the way across there. Certainly in the winter, when there are no leaves on the trees, you get a clear view of it.

BBC: Until Dr Busby produced his report Alan and his wife had always regarded their son's illness as tragic but inexplicable. Now they're not so sure.

AL: Oldbury power station only really came into view about two weeks ago when we started to hear the reports that have been written about it. Now that they have raised the possibility that it could be the cause of the leukaemia, obviously that's stuck in our minds.

BBC: They'd like the claims of the leukaemia cluster, linked to the power station, to be investigated more fully in the hope that other families could avoid the pain that Stephen has had to endure.

AL: The treatment for myeloid leukaemia lasts for six months, so effectively our life was on hold for six months. Stephen had to have four courses of chemo- therapy, he had to have his mouth swabbed, he had to have twenty-eight blood transfusions. Now obviously when that is going on your main objective is to get him well again, and you don't think of what the cause might be but it does make me quite angry to think that some man-made reason could be the cause of this leukaemia in Stephen and all the trauma that we and other parents have to go through, as well as the children themselves.

Sue Langford: I believe that they should look into Oldbury. It's disappointing the find that such a large nuclear power station should be in an area where there's such a large amount of people.

AL: I know a lot of people are saying that there's no proof in it, but I think that onus is now on the power station authorities to prove that it isn't there, or to prove that something is the problem, because it clearly can't be right that there's more leukaemia in this area without some explanation.

BBC: For Stephen Langford it's been twelve years of struggle. Whilst the leukaemia has gone, it's left him with a long term heart complaint and kidney troubles.

Stephen Langford: At school when we do races I come in one of the last five, because the chemotherapy has affected my heart and my fitness. I feel annoyed because I think I could have done quite well if I didn't have leukaemia.

AL: If there is the slightest chance that Oldbury power station is the cause of leukaemia in any one person then I think there is no doubt it must be closed.

BBC: Dr Michael Clark is from the National Radiological Protection Board; Dr Chris Busby is from Green Audit. In his report Dr Busby claims that his findings of increases in childhood leukaemia in Chepstow are comparable with the famous Sellafield cluster. So is he saying that there's a direct link between the cancers and the nuclear power station?

Chris Busby: This is our hypothesis, yes. You can't actually prove any of this; all you can do with epidemiological studies of this type is to say that you have a level of probability that this is the case, and that's all. But this is the kind of evidence you could put in a court of law, for example.

BBC: But isn't there a possibility that there could be other reasons for the incidence of cancer in this area?

CB: If it were just this area on its own I would say "Certainly"; and if I had found it out of the blue in Chepstow I would not have run off and said it's the radiation. but I have been studying this area for fourteen years, now.

BBC: But your research hasn't been peer reviewed has it?

CB: No. The reason for that is that there hasn't been time. I believe, in the case of these sorts of discovery, that they should be made available to the public fairly quickly. The peer review process takes a very long time ..

BBC: But isn't there a danger, if it's not peer reviewed, then your claims will be dismissed as scaremongering?

CB: Well of course, some people can dismiss them as scaremongering, but what people should do is look at the research and look at the numbers, rather than attacking me. I mean the numbers in this leukaemia cluster in Chepstow; there's no problem there - nobody can say that the numbers are wrong. These people exist, and not only that, but Stephen, for example, said that there were two children at school with him, in his class, that had leukaemia. Now these children were not on my database, so this would suggest that the situation is actually worse than what I have found.

BBC: Dr Michael Clark, there are very serious claims here and the situation could be worse than Dr Busby has so far discovered. Isn't it time that there was a full investigation?

Dr Michael Clark: Well there is the UK Childhood Cancer Study going on at the moment which is looking at practically all the cases - nearly four thousand cases - and comparing them with nearly eight thousand controls. I should say that the problem with this sort of thing is that Dr Busby is the leading light in a pressure group. He is not actually a professional epidemiologist (he may be a good amateur one) and he's gone straight to the newspapers and this poses a real problem for the scientific process. We can't comment in detail on things that are put on the internet and via the newspapers. That's not the proper way to go about things

BBC: But surely is there's the slightest possibility, as Alan Langford said, that these cancers may be due to a man-made cause, there needs to be an urgent and quick inquiry, and the scientific process does, as Dr Busby said, take a long time.

MC: .. which is inconvenient to him, but that's ....

BBC: It's inconvenient to people living in the area too,

MC: Well, I think we have to find the truth of the matter and there is a system and it involves such claims being published in the proper scientific literature.

BBC: Dr Busby, what's your answer to that?

CB: I have published in scientific journals. My recent publication in the journal Energy and Environment has been picked up by the World Health Organisation, and I have been invited to give it at a prestigious conference in Kiev on the effects of Chernobyl. Now the National Radiological Protection Board were sent this paper and they said it was a load of bunk and they said all these things that Michael is saying about me now - that you're a member of a pressure group and so forth as if this somehow negates what I have discovered. but I come back to what I said before: certain things that are of overwhelming public interest need to be taken to the public.

MC: This is ridiculous. Ionising radiation has been studied for over fifty years - nearly a hundred years - by some of the greatest minds of the twentieth century and ..

CB: Well how is it that all these children are dying of leukaemia near nuclear power stations?

MC: That's the claim you are making ..

CB: It's not a claim I am making - it's a claim made by COMARE and you know perfectly well that it's true ....

MC ... you could say it's because they are near to Chepstow race course

BBC: Gentlemen, I think there is a point here. Two very eminent scientists are arguing and are still arguing about the causes and the effects. People in the meantime are finding that their children are ill with leukaemia. They want answers. I come back to this question again, Michael Clark, don't we really need a full investigation, because public confidence is dented?

MC: and there is. There is an enormous study - the UK Childhood Cancer Study is looking at practically all the cases of childhood cancer in the UK. It's trying to look at natural radiation, use of drugs, chemicals ...

CB: It's not looking at nuclear power stations though.

MC: Well that's ...

CB: It absolutely is not. I have a letter from the Director saying that they don't intend to look at nuclear power stations ..

MC: That's true. You have ...

BBC: So why, Michael Clark, are they not looking at power stations?

MC: Well you'd have to ask them I, I, I'm not on the er childhood cancer study

CB: I have asked them and they've told me that they don't believe that the radiation from power stations causes cancers, so they're not going to look and see whether it does.

MC: There's almost a kind of scientific fascism here. "It's got to be ... We can see this thing, It's got to be the cause ..."

CB: I don't say that. I am saying that there's evidence that this is so and it should be properly examined. And in respect of scientific process and peer review and so on I have to say that in the case of BSE this failed us all utterly, and the person who said that BSE couldn't cross the species barrier was at that time the Chairman of the National Radiological Protection Board.

MC: You're talking about Sir Richard Southwood ..

CB: That's right.

MC: .. and this came out in the report. The problem there was how the politicians used the risk estimates. Sir Richard Southwood said quite clearly that that was the evidence so far. He said "If we are wrong, then the consequences could be very severe." He didn't say the risk was zero, he said at the time the risk was remote on the basis of current knowledge.

BBC: Aren't we back to the situation that we were in with BSE, that we're still in with MMR:- the public want to know that there is evidence that there is no risk, not that there is evidence that there is risk

MC: You can never prove zero risk; it's just impossible to prove the negative.

BBC: Dr Busby, where are you going to go next?

CB: I'm going to ask for sacking of the major Government committees - the Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment and the Small Area Health Statistics Unit and all these people who are studying these things and who have failed to research the mechanisms and failed to find the Chepstow cluster - they should all be sacked, and we should start with a new inquiry - a public inquiry or an inquiry in which independent people can give evidence about this whole area of the risk model of childhood leukaemia and low level radiation and nuclear power stations, because clearly something is very wrong.

BBC: As a footnote to this we spoke to British Nuclear Fuels which is responsible for the Oldbury power station. We were told that mangers there take advice from a number of sources on the safety of the plant including the Department of Health and the Welsh Cancer Intelligence Unit, and that they can find no evidence of cancer associated with past or present at Oldbury.

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