4 November 1999 Edition
Research shows high cancer along Irish Sea coast
Clear links to Sellafield
Amazing story of the `disappearing' figures
Recent research into cancers on the Irish Sea coast of Wales has produced startling results. Independent researchers Green Audit, headed by Dr. Chris Busby, have found large increases in all cancers in a narrow strip, 800 metres wide, along the Welsh coast. In the case of childhood leukaemias, age 0-4, children who live within this strip are 4.6 times more at risk than the average for England and Wales combined. The incidence of cancers falls off the further you get from the coast.
Green Audit got the small area data upon which these results are based from the Welsh Cancer Registry in May 1995. In April of 1996, the Wales Cancer Registry was closed down. The data were then temporarily held by the Welsh Office statistical unit. Green Audit subsequently obtained a further complete small area data base from that unit, including information for an extra year, 1990.
In January 1997, a new body, the Wales Cancer Intelligence and Surveillance Unit (WCISU), took over cancer registrations in Wales. The WCISU denied the figures upon which Green Audit's research was based. In April 1998, WCISU published alternative data, which removed, without explanation, 3,517 cases from the original data base.
On the basis of these new broken down figures, the head of the WCISU has attempted to rubbish Green Audit's results. The WCISU says that there is no copy of the original data released to Green Audit and that it cannot be reproduced because WCISU no longer has such small area data. It only has data at the level of districts (populations of approximately 20,000).
Original data released
Dr. Chris Busby was working on figures provided by the Welsh Cancer Registry for cancers between 1974 and 1989. He found a six-fold excess in brain tumours and a 4.6 excess in leukaemias in the 0-4 age group of children, in comparison with the national average in all of England and Wales.
Overall, the relative risk of cancer in comparison with the national average was 2.5 times greater. He also found incidences among adults in the area to be 30 per cent in excess for all cancers, and 60 per cent in excess for female breast cancers.
This research was based on data which were released to Green Audit in 1996 by the Welsh Cancer Registry. After considerable pressure from press coverage, Irish MEPs, TDs and local authorities in Wales, Dr. Mary Cotter, who was director of the Welsh Cancer Registry and Dr. Deirdre Hine, who was chief medical officer for Wales, released data to Dr. Busby. The date was for all Wales and broken down by small areas, of approximately populations of between 2,000-8,000, 18 of which are coastal towns.
There was no doubt about the validity of the data. Dr. Cotter stated that all the childhood cancers had been validated and were 95 per cent accurate.
Coincidentally, after these figures were released to Green Audit the Welsh Cancer Registry was closed down, on 24 April 1996.
Significance of results
Research into this data needed access to a large computer. This only became available to Green Audit at the end of 1997, with help from the Irish government. Preliminary results from Dr. Busby's research emerged in August last year.
Results are statistically so strong, that in the case of adult cancers, for example, the possibility that the result could have occurred by chance was less than 1 in 10,000.
In a comment in Radioactive Times, the journal of the Low Level Radiation Campaign (LLRC), an organisation of scientists concerned about the dangers of low-level radiation, it is pointed out: ``Over the period 1974-'89, which included peak emissions from Sellafield and peak levels of radioactive pollution to the coast of Wales, there were 5,500 excess cases in the 1 kilometre strip along the Welsh coast. It follows that more than 3,000 of these people died of cancer who would not have died of this disease if they had lived for example on the English Border.''
The link to Sellafield
Last February, the Week In Week Out series on BBC showed a documentary, Sea of Troubles. In the film, Dr. Busby explains how safety levels of radioactivity have been based on cancer incidence following the Hiroshima bomb. However, extrapolating from these figures, where a massive burst from the nuclear explosion occurred, to assess the safety of low level radiation, is quite illegitimate.
Conventional wisdom holds the view that low level radiation - from fall out of nuclear testing and nuclear waste products discharged into the sea, the atmosphere and on land - is harmless, because the levels of radioactivity pale into insignificance in relation to Hiroshima, or even naturally occurring radioactive substances.
However, Dr Busby has shown that some isotopes, which are present in the radioactive waste discharged through the Sellafield pipeline in the Irish Sea, accumulate on fine particles and end up deposited on muds and sands in estuaries, tidal slacks and harbours. These areas have the highest burden of plutonium and other radio isotopes. Dr. Busby found that the highest relative risk figures of getting cancer correlate with areas where these isotope deposit levels are high.
Furthermore, it is possible to show the origin of these radioactive particles. Sellafield discharges have a characteristic fingerprint given by the relative quantities of caesium and plutonium present in the mud samples. The deposits found along the Welsh coastal areas are from Sellafield's discharges into the Irish Sea.
Denying the Results
In Sea of Troubles, Dr. John Steward, Director of the WCISU and Helen Beer, one of Dr. Steward's statisticians, claim that there is no evidence to support Dr. Busby's claims. Ms Beer goes so far as to state that Dr. Busby has ``missed some major fundamental statistical aspects of it, aside from the fact that he has got completely wrong data that he is analysing''.
She goes on to say: ``We in the Cancer Intelligence Unit are very angry about the way Dr. Busby has taken the data, which are incorrect numbers, and he's caused so much public concern among the general public, when the numbers just aren't there.''
And as the LLRC points out, that is the problem. Where have the 3,517 cases in the original cancer data, supplied to Green Audit in 1996, disappeared to in the Cancer Registration in Wales report, published just 13 months later by the WCISU? WCISU doesn't say.
The LLRC last July stated that it believes that: ``It was never officially intended to make the disaggregated data available to independent scrutiny and the Wales Cancer Registry was closed because the data which they did in fact release threatened to be acutely embarrassing to the nuclear industry. LLRC sees the loss of data during the handover to WCISU as an attempt to cover up a problem of massive implications for human health and the economies of regions and countries bordering on the Irish Sea.''