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Friday, 22 October, 1999, 08:46 GMT 09:46 UK
Radiation link with stillbirths
Sellafield workers were under scrutiny
Higher exposure to radiation is associated with a greater risk of fathering a stillborn child among men working at the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant, according to a large-scale study.

The study, published in The Lancet medical journal, was the largest to look at the effects of radiation on workers and how it related to their children.

The risk of the stillborn babies having developed severe defects such as spina bifida in the womb was also higher.

But the study found that workers were less likely to parent stillborn children than the average Cumbria man.

The researchers admitted they could not take into account other factors which might have an effect such as the mother's age or whether or not she smoked.

Generation to generation

Led by Dr Louise Parker of the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle, they examined the records of more than 250,000 babies born in Cumbria between 1950 and 1989.

They compared the birth records with the employees' work histories, and calculated the levels of exposure to radiation in the 90 days before conception and over their lifetime.

They found that even though there was no greater risk than for the rest of population, the risk of a stillbirth increased with the father's exposure to radiation before conception.

"One possible explanation for our findings is that irradiation caused genetic damage to the father's (reproductive) cells," they said.

'Risk associated with mothers'

British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL), which runs Sellafield, says the study showed "absolutely no cause for concern".

David Coulston, BNFL's director of environment, health and safety, said: "It is important that nobody mistakenly interprets these findings as 'cause and effect'.

"For a new statistical association such as this to carry any weight, it must be supported by established science - and it is highly unlikely that a father's radiation dose from working at Sellafield could influence the risk of a stillbirth.

"This is not just a personal view, it is one shared by the international scientific community."

Specialist opinions

BNFL gathered comments from specialists around the world to support this claim, among them Professor John Evans, former director of the Medical Research Council's Human Genetics Unit at Edinburgh

He said: "The risk of stillbirth is overwhelmingly associated with the mother, in particular her diet and level of smoking.

"It is very difficult to see any role for radiation. The paper does not give any evidence for an increased risk of stillbirth linked to radiation doses, and one should not be implied."

Dr Louise Parker explains her findings
The BBC's Richard Hannaford: "Concerns will be raised again"
See also:

16 Sep 99 | N Ireland
06 Oct 99 | The Company File
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