November 1, 1989
For 10 years, studies from, Great Britain and the United States have reported that children and young adults living near nuclear facilities have higher rates of leukemia – a nine fold increase in one case – than expected. Now, research into the incidence of childhood leukemia in Ontario has provided disquieting evidence that a similar tragedy could be unfolding closer to home.
Preschool children born near the Bruce Nuclear Power Development, on Lake Huron. have developed leukemia at twice the expected rate and have died from the disease at 3.5 times the normal rate, according to a $69,000 study for the federal Atomic Energy Control Board (AECB). The children were born within 15 miles (25 km] of the eight-reactor station, which produces 30 percent of the province’s electricity.
Medical records for hundreds of children also revealed slightly higher-than-expected leukemia rates near the Port Hope uranium refinery, the Pickering Nuclear Generating Station, east of Toronto, and the Elliot Lake uranium-processing facility, while rates were slightly lower than expected near the Chalk River research laboratory.
While the researchers, led by Aileen Clarke of the Ontario Cancer Treatment and Research Foundation, say the current numbers are too small to be certain that a problem exists and await the second phase of the study, which will examine children 5 to 14 years of age, the agency responsible for regulating the Canadian nuclear industry has declared that there is no cause for concern. “We don’t have a big problem in Canada,” says Robert Potvin of the AECB. “We definitely do not have a situation like that in Britain.”
But by denying that there is any reason for concern, federal nuclear officials “did their usual 1950s job of putting happy faces on bad news,” according to Norm Rubin, director of nuclear research for Energy Probe in Toronto. Although not scientifically proven, the study “indicates strong grounds for concern that… the CANDU stations in Canada are causing illness and death around them.”
Residents living in the shadow of the nuclear plant have also been slow to draw conclusions. “We are very concerned, and we want the thing monitored,” says Ron Andrews, reeve of Bruce Township. “The results to date are not conclusive enough to make hard-and-fast statements.” Even if they are inconclusive, the Ontario findings, like those in the United States and Great Britain, have important implications for thousands of Canadians living near nuclear facilities in Manitoba, Ontario. Quebec and New Brunswick. And they may fuel the relatively new theory that continued exposure to low levels of radiation can weaken the human immune system, perhaps even in the womb.
Inspired by Canadian scientist Abram Petkau, researchers in the United States have recently been urging further studies into the health effects of low-level radiation. Working out of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.’s research facility in Pinawa, Manitoba, Petkau has suggested that continued exposure to low levels of radiation can be more destructive to immune-system cells than a short-term, higher exposure.
While AECB hopes that phase two of the leukemia study, to be completed by March 1990, will put the matter to rest, Reeve Andrews favours a long-term approach. Recalling that workers were exposed to asbestos for 30 years before health problems started to turn up, he says it will be years before studies can conclude how peoples’ health is affected by living near nuclear-power plants. “I think there is a parallel to be drawn,” he says. “If there is validity to the argument that living close to a nuclear plant is going to cause a higher [leukemia] rate, it would take a significant number of years for it to show up.”