Radioactive Times: LLRC Journal

Dolly falls into Plutonium trap

Report from Radioactive Times Volume 3, Number 2, October 1999 (content not updated but see this link as well)

Professor Sir Richard Doll is well known for lending his considerable reputation as an epidemiologist to promote entrenched industrial and political interests. This August he made headlines about Seascale, where children contract leukaemia at about ten times the national average rate. Doll's intervention must have come as a great comfort to BNFL as the firm begins its attempt to float itself on the stock market, at the same time as it is pursued in the Irish High Court by four residents of Dundalk, angered at the radioactive contamination of their shores and their bodies.

Seascale, just a couple of miles from BNFL's Sellafield complex, is remote. That, officially, is why the nuclear plant was sited there, so that accidents would affect the smallest possible population. A side effect of the remoteness is that if radioactive pollution (whether accidental or routine) did in fact cause disease, the very sparsity of the local population would let the authorities write off the problem as a chance fluctuation in natural rates of disease. Did some early Sir Humphrey murmur "It will be completely deniable, Minister"? Probably.

But the Seascale leukaemia excess is not deniable. It has persisted from the mid- 1950s to the present, and its significance as a real cluster rather than a chance occurrence is now undisputed even by the nuclear industry. Such phenomena (and there are many others) are an embarrassment to them, particularly because they undermine the official view of radiation hazard, according to which radiation doses from emissions are too low to account for the enhanced rates of disease. And if the official version of radiation biology is wrong, the whole nuclear house of cards comes tumbling down.

In order to survive, the nuclear industry needs to do to things. First, shore up the official view, especially with regard to its constructive ignorance of internal contamination. Second, find another explanation for the leukaemia. Professor Leo Kinlen, of the Cancer Research Campaign, thinks he has found one. The industry regards him as a saviour, as he lets radioactivity off the hook. Kinlen's hypothesis is that leukaemia is caused by a virus, possibly a common one, and that its awkward tendency to cluster near nuclear sites is due to migrant workers transmitting the virus to isolated rural communities to whom it is new and who therefore have no natural immunity.

Doll, who has been banging both sides of the nuclear drum for a number of years, supports Kinlen's "population mixing" idea. He argues insistently that:

"[although] Kinlen's hypothesis awaits laboratory proof ... meanwhile it should, I suggest, be accepted as a reasonable explanation of the Seascale findings".(1)
These words are from Doll's keynote address to an international conference on the health effects of low doses of radiation in 1997. In the same address he also supported the National Radiological Protection Board's widely criticised view of radiation hazard. Even as he spoke a Low Level Radiation Campaign activist stood, dressed as the Grim Reaper, chained to the podium.

This summer's message in the national news media was (to quote The Independent's front page) "Found: the cause of leukaemia". But, as the text revealed, no cause had been found. Neither was it news - Doll was just bashing out the same tune again. The only new element was a study in which Heather Dickinson and Louise Parker of the Children's Cancer Unit at Newcastle University had used a computer programme to quantify rates of population mixing and to correlate them with the incidence of some childhood leukaemias. The computer model in fact predicted only about half of the cases found and revealed that risks were highest among the children of incomers, not the locals who, according to Kinlen's original hypothesis, should have been most at risk.

Undeterred, Doll wrote an editorial foreword to Dickinson and Parker's paper as it appeared in the British Journal of Cancer(2). After a lengthy attack on the notion that leukaemia was due either to radioactive pollution or to paternal preconception dose of radiation, he plumped for the still notional virus, concluding once more that:

"... the time may now have come when Kinlen's hypothesis ... can be regarded as established."
His assurance was met by a chorus of raspberries from independent researchers and campaigners. The Newbury Leukaemia Study Group highlighted Dickinson and Parker's caveats that population mixing seems to be just one cause, not the only one, and that "other factors cannot be excluded". Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment pointed out that
"No leukaemias were recorded until several years after the start of military plutonium operations in West Cumbria in the early 1950s, despite the significant influx of almost 8000 construction workers in the 1940s".
CORE also detailed BNFL's funding links with Newcastle University and with the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, of which Doll was a Director, and added that some small Cumbrian villages close to the Irish Sea and where there has been little or no population mixing, have significantly high rates of childhood leukaemia.

The Irish Sea factor was also picked up by the Low Level Radiation Campaign. The Irish Sea is heavily contaminated with insoluble particles of plutonium and uranium which migrate inland and are retained in the lymph nodes after inhalation. The lymphatic system is recognised as a critical organ for leukaemogenesis, and post mortem analysis of nuclear workers and members of the Cumbrian public has shown extremely high concentrations of plutonium in tracheo-bronchial lymph nodes. This creates a large incentive for a pro-nuclear Big Brother to use the airbrush. Big Brother has, unfortunately, been inefficient. His airbrushing has created a trap and Doll has fallen into it. Expounding the idea that radiation doses to the Seascale leukaemia victims were too small to cause the disease, his editorial claims:

" ... measurements of Plutonium and Cs-137 in the bodies of exposed people .. showed that the models that had been used to estimate the doses people received had, for the most part, over estimated them. (Popplewell et al. 1988)"
But examination of this paper(3) and earlier published versions(4) of the same research shows that the embarrassing tracheo-bronchial lymph node data have been cut out.

Similarly Doll cited papers (5, 6) which, he claims, show no evidence that children of nuclear workers are at greater risk of cancer and leukaemia. If he had read further than the abstracts and the media hype he might have seen that this is the opposite of the truth, and that fathers who had been monitored for internal contamination conferred even higher risks on their children.

1 "Effects of small doses of ionising radiation on human health" Nuclear Energy Dec. 1997, 36, No 6 435-441
2. Doll R. Editorial to Dickinson HO Parker L Quantifying the effect of population mixing on childhood leukaemia risk: the Seascale cluster British Journal of Cancer : Vol 81, Issue 1, September 1999.
3 Popplewell DS Ham GJ Dodd NJ Shuttler SD Plutonium and Cs-137 in Autopsy tissues in Great Britain Science of the Total Environment 70 (1988) 321 - 334
4 Popplewell DS Ham GJ Johnson TE, Barry SF Plutonium in Autopsy tissues in Great Britain Radiol. Prot. Bulletin No. 74 10 - 12 and Health Physics 49 no. 2 304-309 Aug.1985 [Note: the earlier published data including TBLNs can be seen in Wendy McLeod-Gilford's report on the LLRC website at]
5 Draper, G. J. Little, M. P. Sorahan, T, Kinlen, L. J. et al. 1997 Cancer in the offspring of radiation workers: a record linkage study. British Medical Journal Vol. 315 p.1181; 8 Nov 1997
6 Eve Roman, Pat Doyle, Noreen Maconochie, Graham Davies, Peter G Smith, and Valerie Beral Cancer in children of nuclear industry employees: report on children aged under 25 years from nuclear industry family study. BMJ 1999; 318: 1443-1450. 29th May 1999

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