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Monday, 13 November, 2000, 14:10 GMT
Sellafield link to Down's births dismissed
Sellafield Nuclear Facility
A fire broke out at Sellafield during the 1950s
Scientists have dismissed claims that a cluster of Down's syndrome births in Ireland may be linked to a fire at a nuclear plant in Cumbria.

Irish researchers studied the causes of a relatively high number Down's syndrome births among a group of women who had attended a school in Dundalk, County Louth in the 1950s.

It followed fears that a cluster of Down's syndrome births - 30 times more than normal - was linked to a fire at the Sellafield nuclear plant around this time.

However, researchers from the Irish Health Research Board said they found no environmental reasons for the cluster and suggested that it may have occurred by chance.

We are unable to rule out chance as being wholly or principally responsible

Researchers from the Health Research Board, Dublin

They also ruled out a link to the influenza outbreak of 1957.

The researchers looked at 387 births to women who had attended St Louis School in Dundalk between 1956 and 1957.

Six of these births were Down's syndrome - more than 30 times the expected rate.

The study found that none of the Down's syndrome births could be attributed to the fact that the women were older when they gave birth, a known risk.

All of these women were young and the oldest had been 31 when she gave birth.

The researchers also found that the cluster was not repeated anywhere else in the town or in other schools around the county.

The research is published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine, an off-shoot of the British Medical Journal.

No link

But the study found that not all of the mothers had attended the school at the same time.

One of the Down's syndrome births could be attributed to an error during the pregnancy rather than something that had happened before conception.

They ruled out a link between the radioactive fallout at Sellafield and the cluster after discovering that three of the women had moved away from Dundalk by the time the fire at the nuclear power plant broke out.

The researchers also highlighted recent research which has failed to link infection or exposure to radiation before conception to an increase in Down's syndrome births.

The authors of the study said chance was the most likely reason for the cluster at this particular school in Dundalk.

Dr Geoffrey Dean, director of the Health Research Board, said: "There is no question that there was a cluster of Down's syndrome births, and it was a surprising cluster.

"But there is also no evidence that it was related to the fire at Windscale as Sellafield was called at the time of the blaze.

"The cluster was due to some unknown factor, such as a possible infection that we do not know about which may have hit the school.

"I do not exclude some cause that we have not yet found. But it seems extremely unlikely to have been due to a 'flu epedemic that had hit the town or the Windscale fire."

The whole premise is based on the fact that a cluster has not appeared after the Chernobyl fire

Dr Mary Grehan
"We are unable to rule out chance as being wholly or principally responsible and this may well be the most reasonable explanation," they said.

A local doctor who has campaigned for the closure of the Sellafield plant has criticised the report.

Dr Mary Grehan said the confines of the research are too narrow to form the basis of a judgement.

She said the research did not include pupils who attended St Vincent's school or clusters which occurred in Maryfield and Balbriggan.

"The whole premise is based on the fact that a cluster has not appeared after the Chernobyl fire.

"These were girls who were in St Louis school in Dundalk in 1956 / 57. They did not produce their Down's Syndrome babies until the early 1960s, early 1970s."

She said the target group for Chernobyl research would be those who would begin bearing children between 1992 and 2002.

"Chernobyl figures are not available yet - it's only happening now."

She said the researcher who had undertaken the study had had difficulty in obtaining figures before 1974 from Newry and the south Down area and had consequently narrowed the field of his research.

Residents of Dundalk have campaigned for many years to have the Sellafield nuclear plant closed down.

They have claimed that the centre poses a risk to their health - claims denied by British Nuclear Fuels which runs the site.

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See also:

13 Oct 00 | Health
Nuclear birth fears eased
04 Mar 00 | Health
Test for Down's 'waste of money'
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