German Nuclear Health Study

   

BY Andrea Levy
6 January 2009

Significant Cancer Rates in Young Children Living in the Vicinity of Nuclear Power Plants in Germany

Heinz Juergen-Peter

Summary


An epidemiological study of the number of cancer cases of children in the vicinity of nuclear power plants in Germany showed a statistically significant relationship with the distance of the housing to the closest nuclear power plant: The number of the cancer cases increased significantly as the distance decreased. For the subgroup of leukaemia cases the statistically significant results were even stronger.

Findings from the Study
The study was commissioned by the Federal Office for Radiation Protection and funded by the Federal Ministry of the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety of Germany. It was conducted by the Institute for Medical Biostatistics, Epidemiology and Informatics of the University of Mainz in October 2007. , ,

The study examined 1,592 cases resulting from all childhood cancer diagnosed and reported to the German Childhood Cancer Registry between 1980 and 2003. All the children were under the age of 5 at the time of the diagnosis and lived in pre-defined regions around 16 German nuclear power plants.

The study showed a statistically significant relationship with the distance of the housing to the closest nuclear power plant.

In the analysis, the data for a single nuclear power plant and its associated region were omitted in turn and the figures were recalculated. Each time the study found no indication that the result is dependant on a single region, although it is most strongly influenced by the cases of leukaemia in the region around the Kruemmel nuclear power plant. However, even if the data from the Kruemmel region are omitted, there is still a significant association between cancer/leukaemia rates and distance from the nuclear power plants (although it is not as strong as with the inclusion of the Kruemmel region).

Between 1980 and 2003, 77 cases of cancer were diagnosed in children under five, living within 5 km of one of 16 German nuclear power plants. Based on the average cancer rate for this age group and this period of time for the whole of Germany 48 cases would be expected. Thus, the risk of children under five years old who lived within 5 km of one of 16 German nuclear power plants being diagnosed with cancer was about 60% higher than expected between 1980 and 2003.

Thirty-seven cases of leukaemia were diagnosed in children under five who lived within 5 km of one of 16 German nuclear power plants between 1980 and 2003, compared with the 17 cases that would be expected for this age group and this period of time living within 5 km of one of the 16 German nuclear power plants, based on the average leukaemia rate for the whole of Germany for this age group and this period of time. The risk of children under five being diagnosed with leukaemia between 1980 and 2003 within 5 km of one of the 16 German nuclear power plants was thus more than 100% higher than expected.

There is, however, considerable statistical uncertainty in the risk estimates for cancer and leukaemia within the 5 km zones around the nuclear power plants, whereas the relationship between the overall number of cancer and leukaemia cases and the distance of the housing to the closest nuclear power plant was statistically significant.

The study concedes that current radio-biological and radio-epidemiological knowledge is unable to explain the results of the study; the emission of ionising radiation from German nuclear power plants operating under normal conditions cannot be interpreted as a cause.

Comments
This detailed German study of childhood cancer is the most comprehensive examination in this field worldwide.
Compared with similar studies this study is outstanding as the result is statistically significant and furthermore it is not restricted to one particular nuclear power plant but considers 16 nuclear power plants in Germany.

After the study was published the German Environment Minister ordered the government’s Radiation Protection Commission to review it. A committee of twelve external independent experts found out that the study is methodologically accurate. In fact, they said the study was flawless. It should be noted that other experts also considered the study to be exemplary, as it was well-designed and carefully conducted.

In a press conference held in Berlin the committee of the twelve external experts pointed out that it was possible to extend one of the study results from the 5 km zone around the nuclear power plants to a 50 km radius. Based on an evaluation of data in the study, the number of cancer cases attributable to the 16 nuclear power plants would rise from 29 (the number of “excess cases” within the 5 km radius) to at least 121 to 275. The relative increase in leukaemia cases attributable to the 16 nuclear power plants would be even greater.

As the study states, current radio-biological and radio-epidemiological knowledge is not able to explain the results.
During the study different factors which might explain the results (i.e. confounders) were thoroughly examined, but there were no indications of potential risk factors, other than the proximity to the nuclear power plants.

In my opinion nuclear power plants should indeed be identified as the cause for the cancer cases. This is because there are many flaws in the current official prediction of cancer rates and they are not nearly as scientific as they appear. Some of these flaws are:

1. The measurements and the records of emissions from nuclear power plants are incomplete (as is the case for the 16 nuclear power plants examined by the study). There could be more radiation escaping than actually measured. (In Germany, data mysteriously vanished exactly at the time and the place where an increasing number of leukaemia cases were registered).

2. I question the validity of the absorbed dose (the physical entity) and, even more, the validity of the equivalent or effective dose for describing the impact of radiation on living organisms. In particular, the equivalent or effective radiation dose is far from being an exact entity and is based on a lot of assumptions.

3. The risk estimates (e.g. for cancer or genetic defects) of radiation from specific equivalent or effective doses are very uncertain. They are mainly drawn from the events at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The major flaws with that are:

• The selection of the control group is highly questionable;

• Children of the age between one and five years were not registered;

• The extrapolation from the high level radiation to low level radiation is extremely questionable.

So, taking all this into account, I would argue that exposure to radiation from nuclear power plants could indeed explain the results of the study above.

Full report can be read here