By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — New medical research that says a cluster of Down’s Syndrome births in County Louth are not related to radioactive fallout from Sellafield plant in Cumbria has been dismissed by a local doctor as an "absolute whitewash."
The research, published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, says there is no obvious cause for the cluster and it may well be the result of pure chance.
The possible link between radioactive pollution from a 1957 fire at Sellafield (then called Windscale) and the cluster of births to mothers who attended St Louis’ School in Dundalk at the time, was first put forward in a study in 1983.
There were also theories that the cluster could have been linked to an outbreak of flu in the school at the time.
The new study says reinvestigation of the original data, potential risk factors and analysis of blood samples and tissue from affected children and their parents, has failed to pinpoint any organic of environmental cause.
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One of the authors, Dr. Geoffrey Deane, the former director of the Medical Social Research Board, said the study had been a big one that had taken five years.
He said that though eight girls were originally said to have been at the school, in fact only six had been pupils there and three of them were not at the school at the time of the fire or the flu outbreak.
There had also been no other increase in Down’s Syndrome births in Dundalk, in County Louth, or nearby in Newry and the Mourne District in Northern Ireland.
"For anything to hit one school and not the rest of the town would be very surprising and very unusual," Deane said.
He said meteorological records also showed the wind blew the Windscale smoke over England and not over Ireland after the fire.
Undoubtedly there was a cluster of Down’s Syndrome, but there is no evidence it was related to the flu or the fire. He said it was conceivable that there had been some still unknown infection that had hit the girls in the school.
Deane said the Down’s Syndrome cluster involving three at the school and three who had left it was very surprising. But it was common sense that any pollution would not hit just one school.
County Louth doctor Mary Grehan, who has been campaigning on the issue, dismissed the new research as an "absolute whitewash" and claimed the basis of the new study was different from the original research.
She said the reason similar clusters had not appeared in Belarus following the 1986 fire at the Chernobyl reactor was because not enough time had elapsed.
"It’s too early. We won’t even see the cluster for another three of four years," she told RTE.
The Irish government has been pressing the British authorities to close down the plutonium re-processing plant at Sellafield.
Last month, the biggest UK study yet found no link between nuclear workers and birth defects in children.
Earlier British studies had suggested that workers’ children were more likely to develop childhood cancers such as leukemia, and that stillbirths and problems such as spina bifida were also more common.
However, researchers from the London School of Tropical Medicine and Hygeine, who had looked at more than 11,700 men and 1,900 women who worked in the industry since 1992, found no link between male exposure and either fetal death or congenital malformation.
The risk of stillbirth or early miscarriage was higher among women whose radiation dose had been monitored before conception — but the number of women involved in the study was low.