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Wednesday, 19 June, 2002, 18:34 GMT 19:34 UK
Sellafield 'increases cancer risk'
Sellafield plant, Cumbria
Sellafield has long been controversial
Children of men exposed to radiation while working at the Sellafield nuclear plant have twice the normal risk of developing certain types of cancer, research suggests.

The increased risk relates to leukaemia and lymphoma - cancers of the blood and immune system.

The question of whether radiation from the nuclear plant in Cumbria is to blame for a local cluster of childhood cancers has long been the subject of much debate.

The theory that there was a link between the doses of radiation received by fathers and the incidence of leukaemia among their children was first postulated in 1990 by the late Martin Gardner, an epidemiologist from the University of Southampton.

However, critics said an apparent increase in cases could equally be due to the large numbers of people moving in and out of the area, increasing the likely spread of cancer-causing infections.

Comprehensive research

The latest research from a team at the University of Newcastle, reported in New Scientist magazine, suggests that Dr Gardner may have over-estimated the effect by a factor of four.

The researchers compared the records of 9,859 children fathered by men exposed to radiation at Sellafield with those of 256,851 children born to other fathers in Cumbria between 1950 and 1991.

Throughout the whole of Cumbria, they found that the incidence of leukaemia and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma was twice as high among the Sellafield children.

The incidence was 15 times as great in Seascale, a small village next to the nuclear plant.

The researchers also discovered that the risk to children rose in line with the radiation dose received by their fathers.

Because a lot of people have moved in and out of Seascale, the researchers found that population mixing did account for most of the extra risk in that village.

But mixing could not explain the two-fold increase in risk for Sellafield children throughout the county.

Genetic link

There is growing evidence from human and animal studies that radiation damage can be passed from one generation to the next.

However, the Newcastle team stress that the additional risk is small.

Only 13 children of Sellafield workers contracted leukaemia over the 41 years.

And because workers now receive much lower doses than in the past, there are unlikely to be implications for the current workforce.

The research was part-funded by the Westlakes Research Institute, which is sponsored by British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL).

Paul Thomas, BNFL health director, said: "This study is very reassuring for our workforce and confirms that the excess risk of leukaemia and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, particularly in Seascale, can be largely attributed to population mixing."

However, Janine Allis-Smith, from the campaigning group Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment, disagreed.

She said: "BNFL has tried to discredit Gardner's hypothesis for years.

"This study vindicates him and it is irresponsible of BNFL to ignore it."

The research was originally published in the International Journal of Cancer.

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