LLRC Journal Radioactive Times. Vol.4 No 1

Still navigating the Sea of Troubles

Welsh Health Secretary ignores "the Seascale of Wales"

Report from Radioactive Times Volume 4, Number 1, June 2000 (content not updated)

The story so far

Earlier issues of Radioactive Times (see Vol 3 Nos. 1 and 2) reported the dispute over findings of high cancer risks in people living near the Irish Sea coast in Wales. The main protagonists are Green Audit, who found the effect using data from Wales Cancer Registry (WCR), and the Welsh Cancer Intelligence and Surveillance Unit (WCISU), which took over the functions of WCR in 1997. WCISU have lost so much of WCR's data that they cannot reproduce Green Audit's study, but they maintain that the data held by Green Audit must be erroneous.

The Government's Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment (COMARE) are supporting the "wrong data" idea following a one-sided hearing last March at which they unquestioningly accepted false reassurances from WCISU's director, Dr John Steward. Welsh Health Secretary Jane Hutt and the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Ruth Hall in their turn accepted COMARE's report and called for Green Audit to withdraw their findings.

Fighting back

WCISU's blatant and rather silly distortion of the populations and removal of cases has only one explanation -- they are trying to hide the evidence.

In response, the Low Level Radiation Campaign and Green Audit have criticised COMARE for failing to spot that, in seeking to refute Green Audit's report, Dr Steward had used the wrong population figures, had analysed the risks for a different area, and had erased cancer cases even from data which WCISU itself had published. In a long and detailed letter to COMARE's Chairman, Professor Bryn Bridges, LLRC says that

within a few months of taking over in 1996, Dr Steward's Unit had published figures showing 138 fewer registrations of "all cancers age 0 -14" between 1974 - 89 than appeared in WCR's last publication. There has been no satisfactory explanation of how this revision, involving cases going back a quarter of a century, was accomplished. In addition, when Dr Steward reported to COMARE a further 15% of cases (48 cases) had been erased.
This blatant and rather silly distortion has only one explanation -- they are trying to hide the evidence.

A red herring

Professor Bridges' reply to LLRC makes only one point - that there is an anomaly in the categorisation of leukaemia in some of the WCR files Green Audit has released to him. Green Audit has been under pressure to release the Wales Cancer Registry data back to the authorities. They have now sent a sample to COMARE.,

On receiving the printout it was immediately apparent to me, that the "all leukaemias" entries are anomalous, writes Professor Bridges. Not all areas have them and where they exist they bear no relation to the actual cases categorised above them. We have now matched the Office for National Statistics data for ages 0 - 14 with those you received from the Welsh Cancer Registry and are convinced that with the exception of the "all leukaemias" category they are almost identical. ... There are no ONS cases corresponding to the "all leukaemias" category and we believe that this category in your printout is spurious, an error.

Professor Bridges has lost the plot, said Richard Bramhall. He has ignored the fact that large excess cancer risks appear in data the accuracy of which he does not dispute.
The very existence of the anomalous "all leukaemias" category shows that something very strange was going on in the Cancer Registry. This is why we pointed it out. The question is: What does it represent? Professor Bridges has hatched up the idea that it's an error created by the computer programme WCR was using, but there is no substance in this. We would be surprised if any statistics software could spontaneously create the series of files called "all leukaemias"; a human agent is far more likely.

Responding to COMARE, LLRC speculates that the "all leukaemias" might have been a "dump" file into which someone was transferring cases in preparation for airbrushing them out to conceal the existence of a public health problem in north Wales. An alternative explanation is that someone with a conscience knew records were being deleted to conceal the problem, but didn't know exactly where the cases belonged or precisely what the diagnosis was, leading him or her to sketch in a geographical and clinical approximation.
Either way, adds LLRC's Richard Bramhall, we need a police investigation, not a circular paper chase. Checking with the Office for National Statistics won't help, as ONS obtained their data from the Cancer Registry in the first place.

Bangor - the Seascale of Wales

It is clear that the effect is driven by remarkably high risks in towns along the north coast of Wales. Worst affected is Bangor, with a 23.5-fold excess of childhood cancers. Like Seascale, Bangor has excesses not only of leukaemia but also of other cancers. The relative risks are higher than at Seascale, with even greater statistical significance since the population is far larger.

Of all the radioactivity which has found its way from Sellafield to Wales, 80% is deposited along the coast between Bangor and Llandudno. This is the obvious explanation for the high cancer rates, but COMARE's main concern is, apparently, to discredit the whistleblowers who are showing up their incompetence.

The Welsh Health Secretary has put off the idea of meeting LLRC and Green Audit. Ms Hutt said:

COMARE, which is considered to be the expert in the field of the medical effects of radiation, concluded that Dr Busby's findings were the result of the use of erroneous data. ... We understand that COMARE is continuing to investigate how the data discrepancy arose and suggest that any meeting should await the outcome of these efforts.

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