from Sunday Herald, 04 May 2008
Children living near nuclear plants run a higher risk of getting cancer, according to three major new studies by scientists from Germany and the US.
The studies have re-ignited the decades-old debate over whether radiation leaking from nuclear power and weapons sites increases the incidence of childhood leukaemia in the surrounding area.
Experts say that the new evidence greatly strengthens the case for releasing a detailed breakdown of leukaemia rates amongst children in the south west of Scotland to help find out if they have suffered from nuclear pollution.
The environment in the Solway Firth has long been contaminated with plutonium from the Sellafield nuclear plant in Cumbria, and by radioactive tritium from the former nuclear power station at Chapelcross, near Annan, which helped service Trident nuclear warheads.
Monitoring for the Scottish Environment Protection Agency in 2006 found traces of radioactive contamination in milk, honey, fruit, vegetables, fish, grass and seaweed from the area. There has also been concern over pollution from the firing of depleted uranium shells at the Dundrennan military range near Kirkcudbright.
The most significant of the three new studies was conducted for the German government, and published in the International Journal of Cancer and the European Journal of Cancer. It found a 117 per cent increase in leukaemia among young children living near all 16 large German nuclear facilities between 1980 and 2003.
Children living within five kilometres of the plants were more than twice as likely to contract leukaemia as those living further away. The study has prompted furious arguments in Germany over whether the nuclear stations can be blamed for the increase.
A second German study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives, discovered a threefold increase in leukaemia among children living within five kilometres of the Krümmel nuclear station near Hamburg. There were 14 cases of the disease between 1990 and 2005, when only four were expected.
US researchers from the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, analysed the results of 17 studies covering 136 nuclear sites in the UK, Canada, France, the US, Germany, Japan and Spain. Their study was published in the European Journal of Cancer Care.
They found that children under nine years old living close to the nuclear sites suffered a 14 to 21 per cent increase in the rate of leukaemia. Death rates from the disease were also increased by between five and 24 per cent, depending on how close they were to the nuclear plants.
Dr Ian Fairlie, an independent consultant on radioactivity in the environment based in London, has analysed the new studies for New Scientist magazine. The German findings are particularly surprising, he said.
“They indicate much larger risks associated with living close to nuclear facilities than we had ever expected,” he told the Sunday Herald on Friday.
“This requires us to revisit UK studies to see if they have underestimated the risks. So we should now give very close scrutiny to the situation on the Solway Firth.”
Scottish health service studies in the 1980s revealed an increased incidence of childhood leukaemia around the Dounreay nuclear plant in Caithness. Other studies found similar increases near the Sellafield plant in Cumbria and the Burghfield bomb factory in Berkshire.
The studies prompted a flurry of legal actions from the families of children who had contracted the disease. The nuclear industry, however, managed to resist awarding any compensation because of the difficulties in proving that nuclear installations were to blame.
One competing theory, advanced by cancer researcher Leo Kinlen, was that the leukaemias were caused by an unknown virus. He suggested that the virus could have been introduced by people moving in to the area to work at the nuclear stations.
But according to Fairlie, this theory has now been knocked on the head by the new German studies. He argued that emissions of the radioactive gas, tritium, could be to blame, pointing out that it had recently been found to be more hazardous than previously thought.
The new studies raised “difficult questions” about living near nuclear plants, Fairlie said. “Should pregnant women and young children be advised to move away from them? Should local residents eat vegetables from their gardens?”
Pete Roche, a former government adviser on low-level radiation based in Edinburgh, agreed the new evidence was disturbing. “It is vital that statistical health information from Dumfries and Galloway is released so that we can examine whether children in that area have been affected by radiation from Chapelcross and Sellafield.”
The Scottish Green Party, which originally requested the information on childhood leukaemia, argued that it was important to understand the effect of low-level radiation on children’s health. “The people of Dumfries and Galloway have a right to know what these risks are,” said a party spokesman.
“The international evidence is growing that even power stations with apparently good safety records are often surrounded by cancer clusters, and there's no indication that Scotland's nuclear plants are any different. This is yet another reason why Labour's attempts to revive the nuclear industry must be blocked.”
This story is linked to one by Paul Hutcheon in the Sunday Herald here.
An earlier story on the quest for information on childhood leukaemia statistics is available here.