This would account for the anomaly between the apparently high numbers of the cancer, and data from monitors, which suggest that radiation levels for the area are below the national average.
Dr Chris Busby, acting for the European Committee on Radiation Risk, says in a new paper submitted to medical journals that a detailed analysis of incidences of leukaemia cases within the Newbury ward of Berkshire suggests that plutonium particles could be suspended in the air by electrostatic action.
The suggestion comes as the Department of Health is finalising an urgent investigation, due to be published next month, investigating radioactivity levels in the Newbury area. The independent Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment (Comare) carried out a study for the department after claims of leukaemia clusters there.
The worries in the area first surfaced 10 years ago when a local doctor's study of leukaemia incidence showed that the only common factor was proximity to the Aldermarston Atomic Weapons Establishment.
Since then they have been fuelled by repeated claims that there was a nuclear accident at the Greenham Common airbase more than 35 years ago, and that AWE Aldermaston and the Royal Ordnance factory in Burghfield have continually released both liquid and gaseous radioactive pollutants into the atmosphere.
Because radioactive plutonium particles tend to become negatively charged, because they throw off positively-charged particles as they decay, they would be repelled from the ground (which is largely negatively-charged) and driven into the air, which generally has a positive charge, suggests Dr Busby. Such particles might also be repelled from monitoring equipment, as it would be earthed.
However, people could still breathe in the particles, which would then lead to them receiving comparatively high internal doses. Such internal radiation doses are believed to lead to leukaemia in offspring.
Dr Busby says that mortality data since 1971 shows that seven key wards near AWE Aldermaston have had 50 per cent more cases of leukaemia - 16 instead of 9 - than national statistics would suggest. However, other scientists have disputed this. The National Radiological Protection Board declined to comment specifically on Dr Busby's work ahead of the publication of Comare's work.Reuse content