Black clouds

New Scientist, 28 March 1985:

There is much in Sir Douglas Black’s article on Sellafield (7 March, p 12) with which even his sternest critics would agree. Thus, there is no doubt about the inability of epidemiological studies to provide indisputable evidence of causality. Equally, no one disputes that a causal relationship between Sellafield discharges and local cases of childhood leukaemia is biologically possible.

It is widely realised that radioactive contamination along the Cumbrian coast is unique, both in terms of level, and duration of exposure, that the alpha discharges result in bone marrow exposures which are unparalleled in any other civilian population, and that the placenta does not offer an effective barrier to fetal exposure. Consequently, if nuclear establishments are going to produce any biological effects at all, it is in the population of Cumbria that those effects will be most apparent.

Black’s inquiry identified some biological phenomena, but omitted several others. For example, it failed to mention that of the 675 electoral wards surveyed in the North of England, four of the ten with the highest incidence of leukaemia are located along the Cumbrian coastline. It excluded two cases of leukaemia diagnosed in Seascale in 1983, and did not update its information on the other “top ten” electoral wards. It failed to observe that leukaemia was not the only malignancy present in excess around Sellafield. It failed to draw the obvious parallel between Cumbria and Denver, where an increased rate of malignancy, including leukaemia, has been documented downwind of a local plutonium production plant, which also caught fire in the late 1950s.

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