A week after Chernobyl strange rain fell on the crofters' sheep. Then the crofters started to die . . .

Liz Hunt investigates claims that a cancer `cluster' in the Hebrides could be linked to Chernobyl fallout
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When Chernobyl is forgotten is when we'll pay the price,

But we surely will remember, death from cancer isn't nice.

The government protects from cancer and its pain

They tell us we are safe from radioactive rain...

It is when Chernobyl is forgotten that you will pay the price...

From the Stornaway Gazette, May 17, 1986

TEN years after the radioactive cloud from Chernobyl passed over their island, the people of Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides are wondering if that clumsy poem in a local newspaper was a chilling prophesy.

Cancer cases have risen dramatically in the past 18 months and local doctors are bewildered. They do not wish to cause panic, but some have decided to speak out in an attempt to persuade experts to investigate the phenomenon and compare their figures with larger populations on other islands and the mainland.

"I first noticed it early last year when over a period of five or six weeks I was referring one patient a week to the Macmillan [cancer] nurse," said Dr Francis Tierney, a GP at the Griminish surgery. "Normally it would be two or three a year."

He and his colleague, Dr Andrew Senior, were struck by the age group affected, the types of cancer they were seeing - most commonly of the digestive tract - the length of time the victims had lived on the island and their crofting background. These factors triggered the tentative link with fallout from the Chernobyl explosion.

Benbecula is a pinprick of land, some six miles across, nestling between North and South Uist in the Western Isles. On sunny days its beauty is breathtaking, a wild uneven landscape surrounded by long swathes of white sand and an aquamarine sea.

The locals among its 1,800 population adhere to the crofting tradition, maintaining the small parcel of land, which has often been in the families for generations, in addition to other jobs in the service industries or at the army base. They grow their own potatoes, carrots, cabbages, and turnips, and keep small flocks of sheep and maybe a few pigs for their own consumption.

Dr Tierney had been working in a hospital in the Highlands at the time of Chernobyl in April 1986. He remembered the news reports about contamination of soil, water, and livestock with caesium 137 and iodine 131 on the west coast of northern Scotland, where heavy rain fell as the radioactive cloud passed over in the first week of May 1986.

"I started asking the local people and they were coming out with these stories about the heavy rainfall at the time, the ban on sheep movements, and about this orange-pink dust they had seen," he said.

Peggy Mackinnon saw the dust. Her husband, Ronald, who died of pancreatic cancer aged 56 in 1990, went out one morning and found several of his sheep covered in it.

"It was light pink. He'd never seen anything like it before. When he asked around other people said they'd seen it, too. He took samples of the fleece to the agricultural college at Bailivanish to be tested. He kept asking and asking for the results, but got nothing. Then they said it was paint! Paint! How could it be paint? Where could it have come from?"

The dust has been dismissed by the authorities as paint powder or sand from the Sahara dropped by a freak wind.

Mrs Mackinnon, 58, is not a fanciful woman, but her husband's death and the illness of so many neighbours bothers her. As she stands at the kitchen window of her home in the tiny village of Torlum, looking down the mile- and-a-half of lane to the main road, she recites the names of relatives and neighbours who have cancer or who have died of it.

"There was my brother-in-law, Donald. He had pancreatic cancer. Then Alan X, just a quarter-of-a-mile away. There was the man in the next house, then John Y, half-a-mile away, and Willie Z. We all comment on it," she said.

"A friend of mine is a radiographer at the Western Infirmary in Glasgow and she said it was amazing the number of people coming in from the Western Isles with cancer."

It is because people with cancer from the islands are referred to a variety of hospitals in Inverness, Stornaway and Glasgow - that any increase in a particular area can be missed, according to Dr Senior, a partner in the Griminish practice. He arrived on the island 18 months ago, and has been struck by the rate of one cancer a month in a practice with 2,400 patients. (The surgery also serves patients from the neighbouring Uists, but most cancers occur in Benbecula people.)

Dr Senior is less convinced of the Chernobyl link, but says it is a question worth raising. "The timescale fits. It is possible there is something in it."

Peter Hutton, 63, thinks so, too. He has liver cancer and can think of four other people with cancer just a few doors away from him on the housing estate in the small village of Creagorry. He has just completed a gruelling course of chemotherapy and is waiting to hear if it has worked. "I don't know about Chernobyl, all I know is that in the past year I've spent more time in the doctor's surgery than at any other time in almost 30 years on this island."

Of course, there are many who are dismissive of the Chernobyl theory and question whether the rise in cancers seen by Dr Tierney and Dr Senior is significant. Most notable among them is John Macleod, a GP at Lochmaddy on North Uist. He disapproves strongly of the way the Griminish GPs have chosen to highlight their concerns. The 19 cases in 18 months is "worthy of study", he acknowledges. But "they are doing this the wrong way round. It will be impossible to come to any conclusion if it is not based on sound principles of scientific investigation".

But that is exactly what Dr Tierney wants. The practice's own attempts to investigate the outbreak further have foundered on pressure of work. He is on call two nights out of three and also works as an anaesthetist at the Dalliburgh Hospital on Benbecula. "I just wanted to stir interest in this, get somebody interested in coming here and studying this. It probably is just a statistical blip, but until it is properly looked at we won't know."

The Scottish Department of Agriculture and Fisheries concedes that testing through the Western Isles was patchy, and there was fierce criticism from the Crofting Commission at the delays and limitations of testing in the wake of Chernobyl.

A spokesman for the National Radiological Protection Board - which was attacked for failing to correct misleading under-measurement of fallout over Britain in its first Chernobyl report - said that radiation levels in the UK were never high enough to cause health problems by inhalation of radioactive isotopes, but more detailed information was needed on the impact on the food chain.

The health effects of Chernobyl are hotly disputed by scientists. Organisations such as the World Health Organisation have been criticised for failing to monitor or investigate the fallout thoroughly. There is agreement, however, that 31 people died as a direct result of the explosion. Thyroid cancers in children have increased 30-fold in Belarus and 100-fold in the Gomel region. There have been 234 confirmed cases in the Ukraine.