Nuke workers face ionising radiation cancer risk at low exposures

Prolonged exposure to low doses of ionising radiation can cause cancer in nuclear workers, a study has found. Research coordinated by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which looked at the exposures of over 300,000 nuclear workers in the UK, France and the US, found that protracted exposure to low doses of ionising radiation can cause the blood cancer leukaemia.

The study, published online on 21 June in The Lancet Haematology, shows that the risk of death from leukaemia increases linearly with the radiation dose. “To date, this study provides the most precise evaluation of the risk of developing leukaemia linked to the protracted low doses of radiation received by nuclear workers throughout their careers,” commented IARC researcher Dr Ausrele Kesminiene, a study co-author.

“It shows that the nuclear workers we studied have a small increase in the risk of dying from leukaemia as their exposure to radiation increases.”

The International Nuclear Workers Study (INWORKS) evaluated the exposures of more than 300,000 nuclear workers in France, the United Kingdom, and the USA between 1943 and 2005. The study assessed the risk of developing certain cancers, such as leukaemia, lymphoma, and multiple myeloma. The study found there was “strong evidence” for a positive association between exposure to ionising radiation and risk of death from leukaemia.

Indicating the findings are grounds for a rethink about permissible exposure limits for ionising radiation, IARC director Dr Christopher Wild explained: “Current standards used for radiation protection remain primarily based on acute high-dose exposures, derived from studies based on atomic bomb survivors in Japan.”

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