Intended for healthcare professionals


The nuclear industry family study: linkage of occupational exposures to reproduction and child health

BMJ 1999; 318 doi: (Published 29 May 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;318:1453
  1. Noreen Maconochie, lecturer (Maconochien.maconochie{at},
  2. Pat Doyle, senior lecturera,
  3. Eve Roman, readerb,
  4. Graham Davies, research fellowa,
  5. Peter G Smith, professora,
  6. Valerie Beral, professorc
  1. a London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, University of London, London WC1E 7HT
  2. b Leukaemia Research Fund, Institute of Epidemiology, University of Leeds, LS2 9LN
  3. c Imperial Cancer Research Fund, University of Oxford, Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford OX2 6HE
  1. Correspondence to: Dr
  • Accepted 21 April 1999

Concern about high rates of leukaemia and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma among children and young adults living near certain nuclear establishments in the United Kingdom has led to a series of population based case-control studies. 1 2 All these studies have investigated the possibility that the excesses were related to parental employment in those establishments, but the statistical power to detect anything other than extreme associations was very low owing to the rarity of employment in the nuclear industry (coupled with the rarity of the outcome). Moreover, if harmful parental occupational exposures were to exist it is unlikely that their effect would be restricted to cancer among workers' children; such exposures might be expected to influence a broader spectrum of reproductive problems, including infertility, miscarriage, and congenital malformations. These other aspects of reproduction remain largely unexplored.

The nuclear industry family study was set up to examine the occupational histories of a large cohort of nuclear industry workers in relation to all aspects of their reproduction and children's health. A full report of the methods is available on the BMJ's website.

Subjects, methods, and results

The survey population consisted of all employees of the Atomic Energy Authority, the Atomic Weapons Establishment, and British Nuclear Fuels who were in service at the time of the study, between 1993 and 1996 (8100, 6610, and 15 550 workers respectively). Also included were past employees of the Atomic Energy Authority and British Nuclear Fuels who were aged under 75 years and who had an active or preserved pension administered by their joint pensions administration office (9678 and 6458 workers respectively). Of the survey population, 78% was male (36 342 workers).

Postal questionnaires were used to collect details of all reproductive attempts and the health of any children. Questions relating to periods of infertility were also included. Medical outcomes of interest were validated, with appropriate permission, by using clinical notes. Date of conception was estimated as the date of the end of pregnancy, minus gestational age, plus 14 days. Gestation was estimated as 40 weeks for most liveborn children (36 weeks or 28 weeks if prematurity was indicated) and was known for most incomplete pregnancies.

Information on employment and monitoring for exposure to ionising radiation was obtained from the three authorities and was computer linked to the data on reproduction and child health by using unique personal identification numbers. Parental preconceptional dose was estimated for each pregnancy.

Excluding the 7% (3068) questionnaires that were returned undelivered, the response rate for completed questionnaires was 82% for men and 88% for women. This adjusted response rate was uniformly high across authorities and by employment status. Only 1276 (3%) workers refused to participate.

At the time of survey 67% men and 58% women returning a completed questionnaire had, or had attempted to have, children. Of these, 2% and 3% respectively had never achieved a pregnancy. Just under half had conceived (or attempted to conceive) their first pregnancy after starting work in the industry, and over 70% had been in continuous service at one site until either leaving the industry or date of survey. Characteristics of these workers, and of the 53 672 completed pregnancies they reported, are presented in the table.

Characteristics of workers reporting ever having attempted to have children, and of their pregnancies and liveborn children. Values are numbers (percentages) unless otherwise specified. Definitions and explanations will be found in the tables on the BMJ website

View this table:


This is the first UK study to link detailed data on reproductive history to occupational information held by employers. Its design and conduct resulted in high quality data on a representative population of the workforces of the Atomic Energy Authority, Atomic Weapons Establishment, and British Nuclear Fuels. The response to the survey was extremely good, and a unique relational database has been created. This has enabled infertility, pregnancy, and child health outcomes to be examined with respect to parents' employment and dosimetry. The methods used in this study have been adapted for use in other important occupational investigations such as the study of reproductive outcome of veterans of the Gulf war.


We are grateful to all members of the study team at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, to our scientific steering group, and to all members of the industry who helped us. Most importantly, we thank the study participants themselves.

Contributors: NM (guarantor) participated in protocol development, data collection, analysis and writing the paper. PD participated in protocol design, data collection, analysis and writing the paper. ER initiated the research and participated in protocol design, data collection, analysis and writing the paper. GD participated in data collection and analysis. PS initiated the research and participated in protocol design and writing the paper. VB initiated the research and participated in protocol design and writing the paper.


  • Funding Department of Health and the Health and Safety Executive.

  • Competing interests PS has received funding from British Nuclear Fuels Ltd for research on the health of Sellafield workers.

  • website extra: A full report of the methods of the study is available on the BMJ's website


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