Experts to investigate island cancer deaths

Scottish health scare: Doctors on Benbecula fear high incidence may be linked to food contaminated in fall-out from Chernobyl
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The Government has offered expert help to analyse cancer deaths on a Scottish island following concern that the unusually high rate of the illness may be linked to fall-out from the Chernobyl nuclear power explosion.

It emerged this weekend in the Independent On Sunday that the number of cancers on Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides has more than tripled in the past 18 months. Local doctors believe the increase may have been caused by eating home-grown food contaminated by the explosion.

Dr Francis Tierney, a GP on Benbecula, was disturbed that 19 new cancers have been reported since 1994, when he would have expected only six. He said: "We need the help of scientists to see why we have this increase, and indeed if that is a true increase."

In response to his concern Scotland's Chief Medical Officer, Dr Robert Kendell, offered yesterday to provide experts to investigate a possible link, although he said he believed it was unlikely that either Chernobyl or tests on a local Army range were to blame.

He said: "The first issue to be established is whether there is indeed any cancer cluster, and this requires detailed statistical analysis . . . If the Western Isles Health Board wishes expert opinion on assessing whether there is indeed anything unusual to be explained that can easily be provided."

In the course of the Chernobyl explosion 10 years ago - the world's worst nuclear disaster which released 150 million curies of radioactivity - a radioactive cloud spread over the Western Isles during a time of heavy rainfall. The experts would be expected to look at the type of cancers and whether Benbecula could have been "selectively" contaminated.

Dr Kendell said he was sceptical because the plume spread over millions of square miles, and it was unlikely only a small area would be affected; radioactive fall-out mainly caused thyroid cancers and leukaemias; and cancers related to Chernobyl would be spread over many years as happened in the Ukraine.

The Chernobyl legacy was also blamed for hundreds of Welsh sheep failing radioactivity tests. Flocks on more than 200 square miles of North Wales and 13 farms in Cumbria are still subject to controls and testing which were originally expected to last only months.

A total of 220,000 sheep are still monitored under the controls introduced in 1986 and the latest figures show that 672 failed the test. Any sheep which fail the test are marked with apricot, green or blue paint when they leave the restricted areas, and farmers receive pounds 1.30 compensation for each scan carried out on their animals.

Huw Jones, of the Farmers' Union of Wales, said they supported the controls because they maintained consumer confidence in Welsh lamb, and he said it also showed the numbers were relatively small compared to the peak in 1987.