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Study Links Natural Radiation, Leukemia Rate

June 15, 2012
Written by: , Filed in: Pediatric Radiology
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A large study led by researchers at Oxford University in England has found a link between natural gamma-ray radiation and the risk of childhood leukemia.

The study found a 12 percent greater risk of childhood leukemia for each extra millisievert of cumulative red bone marrow dosage from gamma radiation. Lead researcher Gerald Kendall, PhD, of the Childhood Cancer Research Group at Oxford summarized the findings:

We found a statistically significant correlation between natural gamma rays and childhood leukemia. What is new in our findings is the direct demonstration that there are radiation effects at these very low doses and dose rates.

Dr. Kendall was quoted in an Oxford news release.

The researchers used the National Registry of Childhood Tumours, a nearly complete record of childhood cancer cases in the United Kingdom, as well as records of gamma-ray and radon radiation around the UK. The study compared the radiation exposures of 27,447 children who developed childhood cancer from 1980 through 2006 with the exposures of 36,793 children who did not. The cancer cases included more than 9,000 children with leukemia.

The researchers used data on where the children lived to estimate the cumulative radiation exposures from birth until the cancer diagnosis.

The study found no statistically significant associations between gamma-ray exposure and any other childhood cancers (besides leukemia), nor between radon exposure and any cancers.

Background gamma rays come largely from naturally occurring uranium, thorium, and potassium in the environment. “In terms of preventing childhood cancers caused by natural gamma rays, there’s not a lot you can do,” Dr. Kendall said.

He said the researchers estimated that background gamma radiation accounted for about 40 childhood leukemia cases a year. If the entire UK population lived in the county with the lowest  dosage, it would prevent fewer than 15 leukemia cases per year.

However, he said, the confirmation that low-dose radiation does appear to pose a cancer risk could be useful in judging the risks of radiation from other sources:

The findings are relevant to understanding the risks from low radiation exposures such as medical X-rays and CT scans, planning for the disposal of nuclear waste, and the risks from the exposures received by people living near Chernobyl or Fukushima.

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