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The Use of Aerial Radiometrics for Epidemiological Studies of Leukaemia: a Preliminary Investigation in SW England

Scottish Universities Research and Reactor Centre
Publication Date
  • Biology
  • Design
  • Earth Science
  • Ecology
  • Geography
  • Medicine


The report presents the results and conclusions of a pilot study designed to evaluate the potential use of aerial gamma ray measurements in epidemiological investigations of leukaemia. The sources of natural radiation were reviewed and associations between U, Th and K and dose to the human population noted. The association between leukaemia and radiation exposure was also noted, in particular the clear evidence from high dose studies, the potential importance of radium and radon, and the difficulties of achieving statistical significance in case-control studies at environmental dose rates due to the need for large area surveys covering large populations. Aerial surveys were conducted in three disjoint grids selected by the Leukaemia Research Fund Clinical epidemiology unit at Leeds University. The areas covered some 2,500 km, and were surveyed in a 50 hour fieldwork period in September 1989. Over 4800 gamma spectra were recorded, representing between 200 and 400 times the number of measurements per unit area of the NRPB national maps, and an area sampling density some 106 times greater. The data were used to estimate specific activities of potassium, uranium and thorium. Environmental infinite matrix alpha and beta dose rates were calculated using equilibrium assumptions and gamma ray dose rates were estimated directly from the spectra. Mean values for gamma dose rates were compatible with NRPB estimates for the counties. The detailed gamma ray maps demonstrate that both radiation levels, and quality show local variations within each survey grid of a magnitude comparable with that observed in whole of the UK in national maps. Considerable caution is thus needed in using national data for epidemiological studies. Local variations, which can be clearly associated with underlying geological and geomorphological structures should be taken into account in such work. No significant enhancements were noted due to activities at the Devonport Dockyard, in keeping with published ground based monitoring. The main enhancement in the vicinity of Hinkley Point was due to the authorised discharge of 41Ar, which was clearly detected in the survey. Two methods for associating the radiometric results with epidemiological data were developed and applied. A case-control study was performed by matching case and control locations to individual spatially averaged radiometric results and comparing the associated radiation levels. The second method evaluated radiation stratified incidence rates by combining stratified case radiometric data with similar information estimated from a population density surface constructed for the grids. Weighted regression analysis was used to assess any associations. The results are in general limited by the low number of leukaemia cases within the study area, resulting in statistically weak or insignificant links. However positive associations between equivalent uranium and leukaemia, particularly in the grid including the rivers Tavy and Tamar, were observed in both case-control and incidence rate analyses. A negative association with equivalent Thorium observed in the incidence rate analysis was not reproduced in case-control comparisons. This approach could be extended to larger area studies to increase statistical power. In parallel investigations of the relationship between environmental and individual radiation exposure, and investigation of the potential association between radium, or radon and leukaemia following the trends observed here would be appropriate.

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