Chernobyl 'still causing cancer in British children'

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More than a third of Britain is still contaminated by radioactivity from the Chernobyl disaster two decades ago, and children are getting cancer as a result, an Independent on Sunday investigation has established.

Official measurements - published in a report launched in London yesterday - show that at least 34 per cent of the country will remain radioactive for centuries as the result of the accident, which took place 20 years ago on Wednesday.

And scientists have found rates of thyroid cancer in children in Cumbria, the worst-affected part of England, rose 12-fold after the catastrophe - and blame fallout from the radioactive cloud that spread from the stricken reactor. This confounds government assurances at the time that the radiation in Britain was "nowhere near the levels at which there is any hazard to health".

The report - presented at a conference at the Royal College of Surgeons organised by Medact, a health charity - cites official figures to show that most of the highly radioactive caesium emitted in the disaster was blown across Europe by winds.

In Britain, about 81,000 sq km (31,000 sq miles) - mainly in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the west of England - were contaminated above 4,000 bequerels per square metre.

The report says the radioactive caesium - and the doses of radiation it gives Britons - will only "decline slowly over the next few hundred years".

Scientists at Newcastle University examined rates of thyroid cancer in children across northern England before and after the Chernobyl cloud passed overhead.

They found slight increases across the region - and an abrupt 12-fold jump in Cumbria, which received most fall-out. Professor Louise Palmer, who led the study, said yesterday that the results were "consistent with a causal association with the Chernobyl accident".