Power Lines, Fallout and Childhood Leukemia


The risk of leukemia for children living near power lines closely tracks levels of radiation from nuclear bomb test fallout, writes Chris Busby. The obvious explanation the ‘experts’ have chosen to ignore: the electro-magnetic fields increase radiation exposure.

The Childhood Cancer Research Group (CCRG) has recently published the results of a study of child leukemia near high voltage powerlines.

The conclusions have been widely reported as proving that there is no excess risk, as in Medical News Today:

“No childhood leukemia risk from power lines – Children who spend their early years living near overhead power lines are not at greater risk of developing childhood leukemia, according to researchers at the University of Oxford in the UK, who report their findings in the British Journal of Cancer.”

However it is a tortured interpretation of what the results really showed. What they found answers one of the most important questions in the area of childhood cancer, and one that I have been involved in for 20 years.

Enter the nuclear establishment’s wet blanket

The CCRG, based in Oxford, was set up originally in the 70s by Dr Gerald Draper. Draper began his career working for the late Dr Alice Stewart, whose ground-breaking research and data identified radiation as one cause of the increasing rates of the then largely new disease, childhood leukemia.

Alice told me she didn’t trust him. He quickly left her to set up the CCRG, an operation largely to parallel her own acquisition of childhood cancer data, but (mysteriously) much better funded.

The CCRG are essentially part of the environmental risk fire brigade funded by the government. Any suggestion that there is a problem (with radiation near nuclear sites, with high voltage powerlines, mobile phones, etc) is ‘independently’ investigated by CCRG – and the public are reassured.

It was CCRG that examined child cancer near nuclear sites and (through questionable methodology) recently gave an ‘all clear’. In my own studies of child leukemia in the UK (e.g., the Irish Sea, Aldermaston/ Harwell, Chepstow, Dumfries) Draper has popped up to have a go at me, and to play down any suggestion of links with radiation.

In 2005, however, CCRG went off at a tangent. Draper and colleagues carried out a study of childhood leukemia near high voltage powerlines.

This is an issue which has been an area of controversy since the 1970s when Wertheimer and Leeper first reported an association between low frequency (wiring) electromagnetic (EM) fields and childhood cancer. [4]

It’s a highly controversial area which has now generated enormous amount of research and which has spilled into the mobile phone-and-cancer arguments.

Identified – an excess of child leukemia near power lines

The Draper 2005 study or ‘CCRG study’ was a case-control study of a large number of children living in England and Wales diagnosed with cancer and leukemia living near high voltage power lines.

Results demonstrated a modest but statistically significant excess of child leukemia 0-14 in those living less than 600m away. For those children within 200m the relative risk RR was 1.64. That means that there was a 64% greater chance of developing childhood leukemia if the child lived less than 200m from a high voltage power line.

The study covered 1962-95 and involved 9,700 children with leukemia and the same number of controls. The powerlines examined were the 400 and 275kV lines. This result was, of course, rather embarrassing for the government and particularly the electricity supply industry.

Various committees were set up, including one, SAGE which, since I had carried out some research in this area (funded by Children with Leukemia CWL) I was invited to join when it began in 2004. I agreed, but the government found out, and I was suddenly dis-invited.

Burying the evidence

Clearly, something had to be done. Draper retired from CCRG and a new study was funded by the charity Children with Cancer – the same outfit as CWL with a name change.

The senior researcher was Kathryn Bunch (as in bunch of flowers or bunch of crooks) and it is the result of this extension of the earlier Draper et al 2005 study that turned up a most amazing and important result.

And having made they extraordinary and important discovery, they wrote it off in a remarkable scientific misinterpretation of the findings. This finding is the subject of this article.

The Bunch study increased the number of children with leukemia to 16,620 by extending the period to from 1962 to 2008, and adding Scotland to England and Wales. The authors found that over the whole period and for all the children, the effect declined over time from a relative risk of 4.5 in the 60s to 0.71 in the 2000s.

They conclude that “a risk declining over time” cannot arise from any physical effect of the powerlines and is “more likely to be a result of changing populations of those living near powerlines.”

This conclusion is absurd. We are to believe that the explanation of this extraordinary finding is that the types of people that chose to live near high voltage powerlines changed from leukemia sensitive individuals in the 1960s to leukemia resistant individuals today.

Can I have heard right? What do the journalists who report these conclusions think? Do they think at all?

From 1960s to present, a declining risk – but why?

There are two initial results which are key. The first is that the original effect found by Draper et al 2005 [3] is actually found at a greater level in the results from Bunch et al for the period from 1962 to 1999. The Relative Risks in the 0-200m region are given in Table 1 below for the periods used.

Thus the initial observation of a link is supported by the more recent study.

Period Leukemia RelativeRisk 0-200m Cases0-200m Controls0-200m Total Numberof cases
1962-1969 4.5 14 4 1107
1970-1979 2.46 40 22 3519
1980-1989 1.54 52 36 3578
1990-2000 0.99 67 64 4325
2000-2008 0.71 48 59* 3999

Table 1. Results Relative Risk (by regression) for childhood leukemia 0-14 Bunch et al 2014. All data including 132kV lines. * = adjusted for higher control numbers.

What is quite clear is that up to 1990 there were 106 case and 62 controls within 200m, which is a crude population weighted Relative Risk of 2.33. The figure may be compared with the curiously lower Draper figure of 1.6.

Taking all the data to 2000 the RR = 1.86. Also statistically significant as is the result for the entire period to 2008 (1.58). However, the second (and most important) finding is that the reduction of the risk over time is remarkable and is statistically significant.

Despite the overall support for the earlier findings by Draper et al, the BJC/CCRG Press Release headline by the lead author and by Cancer Research UK’s head of health information concentrate on the reduction in the effect with time.

They claim that the study indicates that overhead powerlines do not cause leukemia. This is untrue and dishonest. What the authors do is dismiss their own findings because they say they cannot think of any explanation for the reduction in risk from the 1960s.

Ionising radiation – now why didn’t they think of that?

This is rather odd since the CCRG’s main reason for existence is to examine the effects of ionising radiation on childhood cancer, not powerlines, which were a later addition.

Indeed as I have pointed out, Dr Gerald Draper, who founded the group began his career working with Dr Alice Stewart who herself identified the link between radiation exposure and childhood cancer.

The most likely explanation for the results therefore would be to be found by looking at interactions between ionising radiation exposure and the power lines.

One was in fact suggested by Denis Henshaw et al and indeed cited by the Draper et al 2005 paper – but not cited by Bunch et al 2014. Their observations – theoretical and experimental – “demonstrate a mode of increased exposure to pollutant aerosols under high voltage power lines by increased deposition on the body.”

Since Draper et al 2005 found the effect out to a distance of 600m it is clearly not primarily due to the magnetic or electric fields themselves, as they cannot reach out that far.

Instead some secondary process must be going on. What we now see is that this secondary process decays over the period 1962-2008 – and this is a very important finding.

So, what source of ionising radiation could possibly be involved?

Since childhood leukemia is known to be caused by ionising radiation Bunch et al might usefully have begun looking to see if there was a source of ionising radiation exposure which also decayed over the same period and which might be concentrated in some way near high voltage power lines. They would not have had to look far.

Atmospheric global weapons tests produced significant contamination of Britain in the period 1950-1965. The long lived contamination was to micron and sub micron diameter particles of Uranium, Plutonium, Caesium 137 and Strontium-90 which were injected to the stratosphere and are still rained out today.

I am not the only one to notice the correlation with weapons fallout. My friend Alasdair Phillips of Powerwatch contacted me shortly after I made the connection with his own independent take on the Bunch paper, which was largely the same as mine.

The trend is shown in Fig 1 where it is compared with the powerline leukemia risk trend found by Bunch et al 2014.

Fig 1 Trend in annual estimated doses from atmospheric test fallout for England and Wales (red) and Relative Risk of childhood leukemia by 10y periods for children living within 200m of a high voltage powerline in England Wales and Scotland. Note year 100 = 2000. Note Chernobyl in 1986. [7,8]

The hypothesis to be tested is that there is a correlation between the fallout particulate contamination and the leukemia risk near the powerlines. The argument is that powerlines concentrate the radioactive particles which are then inhaled by the parents and / or children.

Period Annual Fallout dose uSv Relative Risk
1962-1969 68 4.5
1970-1979 19 2.46
1980-1989 11 1.54
1990-1999 4.5 0.99
2000-2008 3 0.71

Table 2 Mean fallout doses for the periods identified in Bunch et al 2014

Data is given in Table 2 for mean fallout doses and powerline risks. There clearly is such a correlation, though this does not, of course, prove the argument. The relation between the fallout (here plotted as mean annual absorbed dose as calculated by NRPB and the Risk of child leukemia is shown in Fig 2.

Fig 2. Relative Risk of child leukemia versus fallout doses. Note statistically significant exponential relationship (RR = Klog(fallout) +C).

A statistically significant correlation

The relationship we see between the increased risk of leukemia and the fallout exposure is not linear. It is modelled as a logarithmic relation in Fig 2 which shows a statistically significant correlation for RR = K log (dose) + C . Other mathematical fits are possible.

But what is clear is that there is a significant continuous trend with exposure. The large increase in fallout in the period 1959-63 resulted in increases in infant mortality from many causes and pre-leukemic conditions are known to result in death from a wide range of infectious diseases.

The relation between fallout Strontium-90 and infant mortality has been shown to conform to a similar dose response.

In any case, the explanation advanced by Bunch et al 2014 for their results is ridiculous. There is no social filtering process which would differentially alter the type of population living near high voltage power lines to the extent that their results show.

The variation in sensitivity for child leukemia with socioeconomic class is modest less than 200% from the most disadvantaged to the most advantaged. And we are looking here at a reduction in risk from 4.5 to 0.7, a range of 650%.

Do power lines pose a health threat now?

The question arises of the relevance of this new finding to those who are currently living near high voltage powerlines. Can it be assumed, for example, that these no longer pose any threat since the levels of radioactive particulates in Britain have declined?

Unfortunately not. If the result confirms the link suggested by Henshaw then the risk from the high voltage powerline will depend on the concentration in the area (near the specific powerline) of particulate contaminants.

The effect would be greater in dry dusty areas, cities suffering from particulate air pollution, and in areas where there are other contaminants e.g. uranium, radon, mining residues etc.

Beaches and estuaries on the Irish Sea and the Baltic Sea – and now the Japanese coast – generate radioactive particles continuously and these are brought ashore in the air by sea-to-land transfer.

Those who live near powerlines and near sites which release radioactive particles (all nuclear sites) will be at increased risk. Radioactive particles released by Sellafield, Chernobyl, Fukushima, and the use of Uranium weapons have circled the globe.

Scientific serendipity

This important and expensive study set out to find one thing, and found something else. What it identified, was a cause, perhaps the cause, of childhood leukemia. And, by implication, the cause of an awful lot else.

One final thing. The highest rates of childhood leukemia ever discovered were in Fallujah, Iraq, where the study carried out by my colleagues in 2010 showed a 14-fold excess in childhood cancers and a 38-fold excess in leukemias age 0-34.

The exposures were to particles generated from Uranium weapons. The particles are inhaled and translocated from the lung to the lymphatic system.

The other place where childhood leukemia rates are unusually high is Fallon, Nevada, where high concentrations of radioactive particles are measured in the atmosphere.

‘Saving young lives’ – really?

In 2012, I asked Children with Cancer – with its touching strapline “Fighting childhood cancer – Saving young lives” – if I could raise this issue at their Conference.

No, they said: childhood leukemia and radiation was being presented by Richard Wakeford, the former head of research of British Nuclear Fuels.

I wonder if those who give money to the charity know where it goes?

Chris Busby is the Scientific Secretary of the European Committee on Radiation Risk. For details and current CV see www.chrisbusbyexposed.org. For accounts of his work see www.greeenaudit.orgwww.llrc.org and www.nuclearjustice.org.

This article originally appeared in The Ecologist.


Dr Chris Busby is the Scientific Secretary of the European Committee on Radiation Riskand the author of Uranium and Health – The Health Effects of Exposure to Uranium and Uranium Weapons Fallout (Documents of the ECRR 2010 No 2, Brussels, 2010). For details and current CV see chrisbusbyexposed.org. For accounts of his work see greenaudit.orgllrc.org and nuclearjustice.org.

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