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Leukemia around La Hague; link to the reprocessing plant?

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(June 29, 2001) A new study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health observes an increased incidence of leukemia in a certain population of 5-9 year old children living within 10 kilometers of the French reprocessing plant La Hague.

(551.5291) Les Mères en Colère (The Angry Mothers)/WISE Amsterdam - Some years ago, on 11 January 1997, a study was published in the British Medical Journal on children's leukemia around the reprocessing plant La Hague. The research by Professor Viel covered the area within a distance of 35 kilometers from the plant and found an excess of children's leukemia in the district of Beaumont, within 10 kilometers of the reprocessing plant. He found 4 cases of leukemia where 1.4 would be expected. Without drawing a definite link to the presence of the plant, its emissions or other nearby installations (the radioactive waste disposal site of French waste management organization ANDRA), Professor Viel suggested that the local food consumption habits, the frequency of visiting the beach and exposure to liquid and gaseous emissions from the plant could explain the leukemia cases.

The same day, mothers of families in the region of Cherbourg organized themselves in the Collective of Angry Mothers (Les Mères en Colère) to demand further information and press Cogema and the other operators for more transparency and objectivity (see also WISE News Communique 509/10.5005: "The mothers are angry at La Hague").

Some months later, two missions were set up on request of the Ministry of Health and the Environment. The first was guided by the Institute for Nuclear Protection and Safety (IPSN) and consisted of a reconstruction of the radiation doses of the local population. The second was headed by Professor Alfred Spira of the National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM) and had the specific mission to follow the incidence of leukemias in the region of North Cotentin, the peninsula where La Hague is located in the departement of La Manche.

The findings of Professor Spira, backed by the cancer register of La Manche département, have now been published in the July 2001 issue of the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. They confirm the excess of leukemia cases in Beaumont. For the group of children aged 5-9 years, three cases of leukemia (all of which were acute lymphoblastic leukemia) were found between 1978 and 1998 where 0.47 would have been expected according to statistics. This is 6.38 times more than expected, which is statistically significant and cannot be explained by normal fluctuations in France.

The observed number of 38 cases between 1978 and 1998 in the region as a whole was consistent with the expected value. The incidence in all age groups within 10 kilometers of La Hague was 2.17 times the expected amount (5 cases where 2.3 expected) but this excess was not sufficient to be considered statistically significant.

As the epidemiologists were aware of other studies on reprocessing plants and leukemia (with observed leukemia increases in Dounreay (UK) of 3.3 times and Sellafield 10.2 times expected incidence) they discuss in their publication the possible link between La Hague and the increase in Beaumont. The possibility of paternal exposure to radioacivity prior to conception (workers) was dismissed because of a lack of reliable data. The scientists concluded that it would be unlikely that radioactive discharges could have caused the increase but recognize that reserves have been expressed about the lack of an uncertainty analysis.

Having discounted these possibilities, the researchers then considered the population mixing theory previously put forward as an explanation for the Sellafield cluster (see WISE News Communique 516.5068, "Sellafield: Population mixing cancer theory again pushed forward"). According to this theory, movements from areas to others could be linked to an increase in leukemia. A study is underway to analyze population movement and childhood leukemia around La Hague. However, the scientists comment "it currently seems difficult to dissociate the correlation between the incidence of leukemia and proximity to the plant from that between leukemia and population movements".

In their last paragraph they conclude: "In view of statistically significant clusters of childhood leukemia near other European nuclear reprocessing sites, and the concerns of the local population, these findings argue in favour of continued investigations in Nord Cotentin."

Rather than the population mixing theory, Les Mères en Colère put forward the mixing of radioactive and chemical pollution, liquid and gaseous, chronic and accidental, known and unknown, coming from La Hague since 1981, and the discharges from the neighboring ANDRA site. The role of gaseous effluent, its volume and its distribution as a result of the specific meteorological conditions on the La Hague peninsula are among the main points requiring clarification, particularly as regards iodine-129.

Les Mères en Colère demand:

  • regular checking of the blood counts of the 830 children of Beaumont-Hague;
  • studies on the exposure of the workers;
  • research on pollutants that could have an effect on the DNA of fetuses;
  • a halt to storage and reprocessing of spent fuel from foreign countries.

[This article is a translated, edited version of a press release from Les Mères en Colère, augmented with information from the paper in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. The paper can be found on the Web at]


  • Les Mères en Colère press release, 25 June 2001
  • The incidence of childhood leukaemia around the La Hague nuclear waste reprocessing plant (France): a survey for the years 1978-1998, Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, July 2001

Contact: Les Mères en Colère, 19 la Bordette, 50840 Fermanville, France Tel: +33 2 3344 5251
or Robin des Bois, 15 rue Ferdinand-Duval, 75004 Paris, France Tel: +33 6 1246 9624 or +33 1 4804 3482