Childhood leukaemia: 'not linked to nuclear plants'
Would you be happy moving next door to a nuclear power plant and raising your children there? Or would you worry about the potential health risks? Post-Fukushima and Chernobyl it is hardly surprising that many would prefer not to take any chances.
But a report from an independent scientific committee has concluded that there is no evidence of increased cancer risks for those living close to the 13 nuclear power plants in Britain. The Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment (COMARE) analysed medical records concerning leukaemia in children under five.
The committee chairman Professor Alex Elliott said young children were the most vulnerable to this form of cancer: "If the incidence of in this age group is negligible then we can, with fair confidence, say that there is no problem with other age groups."
Childhood leukaemia is rare, but the committee looked at all cases within 5, 10 and 25 km of nuclear power plants and compared those with incidence elsewhere. They found that the risk was "extremely small, if not zero" for those living in close proximity to nuclear plants.
They also analysed incidence around seven sites earmarked for nuclear power plants which were never actually built. Around these areas they did find an above average incidence of leukaemia. The scientists said this anomaly showed that where clusters of cases are found, care is needed in attributing the root cause.
Previous studies have shown that the incidence of childhood leukaemia differ more than would be expected from chance - in other words, there must be a cause for clusters of cases. But the oncologists, epidemiologists and nuclear experts on COMARE do not think radiation from nuclear plants is responsible.
Today's report will be a fillip for supporters of nuclear power in the wake of terrible headlines following the Fukushima nuclear crisis. Last year the government identified eight sites in England and Wales as suitable for future nuclear power stations.
The committee pointed out that their research deals with nuclear power plants operating normally, so no comparisons can be made with either Chernobyl or Fukushima.
COMARE was set up in 1985 following a recommendation of the report chaired by Sir Douglas Black. This concluded that there was a raised incidence of leukaemia in young people living near the nuclear plant at Sellafield. Subsequent reviews by COMARE have concluded that radiation doses arising from nuclear installations are not nearly high enough to cause increases in childhood leukaemia.
The committee's current report was restricted to nuclear power plants so did not look at Sellafield, which is a reprocessing plant, nor did it include Dounreay, a former nuclear research facility. Its next report will analyse these plants and the clusters of leukaemia cases associated with both.
COMARE has also recommended the government looks at other possible factors involved in childhood leukaemia. In an earlier report it found cases of leukaemia were more likely among wealthier families in the least overcrowded conditions. Other studies have suggested that babies who have regular contact with other children are less likely to develop leukaemia, perhaps because their immune system is primed by early contact with infections.
The new report says: "There is growing epidemiological evidence that childhood leukaemia is linked to infections...either a rare response to a common infection...or a rare response to general exposure to infectious agents...however the biological mechanism underlying these hypotheses remain the subject of considerable scientific debate."
Three years ago a German study DID find a statistically significant increased risk of leukaemia among young children living near nuclear plants. But the COMARE report said the German data did not take into account variables such as the socio-economic status of the families or the conditions they lived in, which could both be important factors.