Radiation linked to still births by Sellafield women

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Women whose husbands are exposed to radiation are more likely to have a stillborn child, a study of workers at the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant in Cumbria indicates. The findings, in The Lancet today fall short of proving radiation caused still births but the study will reignite the debate over the role of radiation in congenital defects.

Women whose husbands are exposed to radiation are more likely to have a stillborn child, a study of workers at the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant in Cumbria indicates. The findings, in The Lancet today fall short of proving radiation caused still births but the study will reignite the debate over the role of radiation in congenital defects.

Scientists led by Louise Parker, senior lecturer in epidemiology at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, found there was a significant increase in the risk of still birth if the woman's husband was a Sellafield worker who had been exposed to low doses of radiation during the three months prior to conceiving.

If the effect is real - which some scientists doubt - the extra still birth risk was still less than it would have been if the woman had been 10 years older, because the chances of a still birth rise with age.

"We found a significant association between workers with the highest rates of radiation exposure and still birth," said Dr Parker. "But we cannot say it was radiation that caused the still births."

The study investigated the radiation exposure records of more than 9,000 Sellafield men exposed to radiation and who had conceived a total of 130 still births and 9,078 live births between 1950 and 1989.

Nine of the still births had neural-tube defects, a lethal congenital abnormality where the spinal cord does not develop properly, which the researchers found was even more strongly linked with radiation exposure of the fathers.

Hazel Inskip, a leading epidemiologist at Southampton University, says in an accompanying article that it is impossible to reach any firm conclusions based on the limited data from the new study.

She says there is no obvious scientific explanation for the association with still births, although it is possible to see a possible mechanism as a result of genetic damage to a man's sperm and subsequent neural tube defects in his child.

But a much larger study of the children of people exposed to far higher doses of radiation from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs failed to establish links between radiation doses in men and congenital defects in their children. Dr Parker said this study is re-analysing the data in the light of her findings.

Another study in the US had found a link with neural tube defects and exposure in men but this association was dismissed by the scientists involved as a chance finding of no significance.

Dr Inskip points to other failings in the Newcastle study, such as the small numbers involved and the lack of data on the mothers' ages and smoking habits, factors known to increase the risk of still births.

In 1990, similar research by the late Martin Gardner of Southampton University suggested a link between childhood leukaemia and radiation doses of male Sellafield workers but this was subsequently dismissed by other scientists.

Professor Richard Doll, the doyen of cancer epidemiology at Oxford University, says the latest study in The Lancet poses more questions than it answers because it lacks crucial information and is incompatible with what is known from other much larger studies.

"My own feeling is that until some awkward questions are answered one cannot pay very much attention to it," said Professor Doll.

* Two workers at a nuclear plant suffered "internal radioactive contamination" after cleaning a cooling pond, the company admitted yesterday.

The men are believed to have swallowed or inhaled contaminated dust while scraping the inner layer of the pool at the decommissioned Trawsfynydd plant in Gwynedd, north Wales.

"We think there must have been a gap in the seal on their breathing apparatus which let some dust in," said David Cartwright, spokesman for BNFL. "There is no health risk to the men, but it should not have happened."

Work on the cleaning the pond has been stopped.

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