X-ray link to breast cancer 'misleading'

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The Independent Online
New claims that X-rays can dramatically increase the risk of breast cancer and are implicated in the rising incidence of the disease were dismissed as "unsound, inaccurate, misleading and unnecessarily alarmist" by government radiation experts yesterday.

In an unprecedented step, the National Radiological Protection Board took action to discredit the claims by Professor John Gofman of the University of California, Berkley, who features in a television programme to be broadcast next week.

The NRPB said that if Professor Gofman's hypothesis were true, the actual incidence of breast cancer would be far higher than current rate of one in nine for American women and 1 in 12 for British women, and added that: "The breast doses assumed by Gofman are 200 times greater than those measured in the UK today for the common examinations."

Dr Chris Sharp, head of the board's medical department, said: "This is an issue which affects all women and will cause widespread anxiety. We are particularly concerned that forthcoming publicity of Gofman's work will put off women over the age of 50 who are invited for a mammogram [breast X-ray] in the NHS breast screening programme."

More than 1.2 million women per year are screened under the programme and around 6,700 cancers detected. A fifth of these are 1cm in size or less, and carry a good prognosis.

John Gofman, emeritus professor of molecular and cell biology, has made a number of controversial claims over the years linking low-dose radiation and cancer. In his book recently published in the United States, Preventing Breast Cancer, he says 75 per cent of current breast cancers in the US are due to X-rays given between 1920 and 1960.

Overall, Professor Gofman's risk estimates for breast cancer following radiation exposure are at least 10 times higher than those calculated by the NRPB for the UK population.

Dr Colin Muirhead, leader of the NRPB epidemiology group, said: "Gofman's report contains no new epidemiological data. The data he uses has been reviewed previously, in particular by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation in 1994, and all calculated risks are considerably lower than Gofman's."

Dr Sharp said the NRPB had been invited by Twenty-Twenty Television who have produced the programme for Carlton to take part, but had declined because of the "alarming nonchalance about not understanding the science" they displayed.

A spokesman for the company last night defended the programme and described the NRPB's criticism as an "outrageous attack on a programme they haven't yet seen and declined to take part in". He said the professor was an award-winning scientist with legitimate concerns about radiation.