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Chernobyl link to cancer cluster on Scottish island

A SHARP rise in cancer cases on a Scottish island is being linked to radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl explosion a decade ago.

Doctors on Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides say the number of cancers has more than tripled in the past 18 months. They are demanding urgent investigation of the alarming rise, which they believe could be the result of people eating contaminated home grown vegetables, and locally produced mutton, venison, and seafood, over 10 years.

The explosion in Reactor 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear plant 60 miles from Kiev in the Ukraine, the world's worst nuclear disaster, happened in the early hours of 26 April 1986, releasing 150 million curies of radioactivity into the air. The radioactive cloud or plume it generated passed over the Western Isles of Scotland between 3 and 4 May, coinciding with heavy rainfall, which is known to increase the chances of contamination on the ground.

The cancers now being reported are largely of the digestive tract, with some lung tumours. These are consistent with the possibility that people ingested or inhaled radioactive material. Men in their 40s and 50s, and particularly those with some farming background, are worst affected. However, the NHS Breast Screening Programme, based in Inverness, has also reported a higher than expected number of breast cancers for the island.

In one small township, Creagorry, four people with cancer live within a few doors of each other. In nearby Torlun, residents can point to the houses of five victims along a road less than a mile-and-a-half long.

Dr Francis Tierney, a GP at the Griminish surgery on Benbecula who first noted the rise, said: "It is certainly not uncommon to get these kind of cancers in this group, but it is unusual to see so many.

"The increase is largely in people who have lived here for at least 10 years, not in those who arrived more recently. The Chernobyl hypothesis is just one of many ... but it is a question worth asking. What I would like to see is someone coming in and looking to see if it is a real increase and is it more so than in other areas. It may be a statistical blip."

Dr Andrew Senior, a partner in the practice and a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, says 19 new cancers have been reported since late 1994, when the expected number would be about six. "It is the (gut) cancers that concern me ... I would expect one or two a year, but there have been two pancreatic tumours, five or six valve tumours. That is three times more than you would expect ... and these are in fit people, outdoor crofters. It is quite unusual ... Chernobyl is not unreasonable."

Other parts of Scotland, notably the south-west coast, and parts of Northern England and Wales, had heavier rainfalls. But any rises in the number of cases of cancer linked to Chernobyl in those areas would probably take longer to detect because their populations are larger and more widespread than in Benbecula and less reliant on home- grown food. The island, which is about six miles across and has a population of about 1800, is a close- knit community and the rise in cancer victims is a talking point.

Monitoring radioactivity levels following the Chernobyl disaster in Benbecula and neighbouring North and South Uist, Lewis and Harris, did not begin in earnest until August 1986 when members of the Western Isles Council became concerned at reports of contamination in other parts of Scotland, Cumbria, and Wales.

A ban on movement of sheep on Benbecula and North Uist was introduced shortly after, when some animals were found to have more than twice the "actionable" level of radioactivity in their bodies. Shellfish were also found to have suffered severe contamination in the first weeks of May.

Bryan Barrett, assistant director of environmental health for the council, said he had written to the health board on two occasions for data with little result. Radioactivity levels in Benbecula and other islands were not routinely monitored before 1986, he said, and this made it difficult to assess the significance of readings taken since then.

"There were relatively high levels of radioactivity in Benbecula, but these diminished relatively quickly ... our monitoring has indicated that there isn't a problem," he said.

The Western Isles Health Board yesterday declined to comment on the Chernobyl hypothesis, but said it would investigate the rise in cancer cases on Benbecula.