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Living near a nuclear power station doesn't increase a child's cancer risk

BMJ 2005; 330 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.330.7505.1410-b (Published 16 June 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;330:1410
  1. Madeleine Brettingham
  1. London

    No evidence exists that living near a nuclear power station increases a child's risk of cancer, a study published by the Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment has said. But the study confirms that a higher than expected number of cases of leukaemia, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and other solid tumours have been found “clustered” around nuclear facilities in Sellafield, Rosyth, Burghfield, and Dounreay, however.

    The study, which examined more than 32 000 cases of childhood cancer between 1969 and 1993 and is believed to be the largest of its kind, was begun in response to reports that significantly higher numbers of children were being diagnosed as having cancer in areas close to nuclear facilities.

    The researchers found that although word of mouth and media reports about the prevalence of childhood cancer could not be held reliable, there was an increased incidence of the disease in some areas. They named six sites “where there is some evidence of a raised incidence [of leukaemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma] closer to the installation” or that “stand out as having rates (of other childhood cancers) that are significantly raised.”

    Harwell and Aldermaston were also named as possible risk areas. Sellafield was again singled out as an area of particular concern: it is known to produce markedly high levels of radiation and high rates of childhood cancer have persisted for decades. In other areas, the complexity of the data and the inability to factor in all external influences made interpretation problematic.

    Researchers remain perplexed that facilities producing levels of radiation that are relatively low, such as Aldermaston, Burghfield, and Harwell, still seem to show levels of childhood cancer that are significantly, if not dramatically, raised.

    Conversely, the fears associated with nuclear power stations, highlighted in a study in 2001 (Busby C 2001. Childhood Leukaemia and cancer in Chepstow, opposite Oldbury nuclear power station, available at www.llrc.org) that focused on the Oldbury power station near Chepstow, Wales, were found to be misplaced. “We can … say quite categorically that there is no evidence from this very large study that living within 25 km of a nuclear generating site in Britain is associated with an increased risk of childhood cancer,” concluded the report.

    Previous studies have examined aspects of risk, such as how close a child lives to a nuclear facility, parents' exposure to radiation, and contributing factors such as the general prevalence of cancers in the surrounding area. The study confirmed that in many cases where a link between radiation and cancer was found, the risk appeared to be higher the closer the child lived to the facility.

    The Health Protection Agency welcomed the study: “There have been several reports of clusters of childhood cancer around nuclear installations and [we are] concerned to understand the reasons for these … [We] support further investigations around Rosyth and look forward to the … report which will investigate clustering of childhood cancers across the whole of Great Britain rather than specifically around nuclear installations. This will allow a better understanding of this complex question.”

    “Although there is no evidence of a causal link, we recognise that this is an important issue,” said a spokesperson for the Department of Health. “The Department … has an ongoing programme of radiation protection research set up to address these issues.”

    COMARE 10th Report: The incidence of childhood cancer around nuclear installations in Great Britain is available at http://www.comare.org.uk/

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