The non-cancer mortality experience of male workers at British Nuclear Fuels plc, 1946–2005

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Abstract

Background

Recent studies of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki A-bomb survivors, together with some (but not all) cohorts exposed occupationally or medically to ionizing radiation, have found an increasing trend in mortality from non-malignant disease with increasing radiation dose. The aim of this study was to establish whether such a trend could be found in a large cohort of employees in the UK nuclear industry.

Methods

The cohort comprised 64 937 individuals ever employed at the study sites between 1946 and 2002, followed up to 2005; radiation exposures as measured by personal dosimeters (‘film badges’) were available for 42 426 individuals classified as ‘radiation workers’. Poisson regression models were used to investigate the relationship between excess mortality rates and cumulative radiation exposure, using both relative and additive risk models.

Results

The cohort shows a pronounced ‘healthy worker’ effect. Overall, socio-economic status as indicated by employment status has a greater influence on mortality than does radiation exposure status. For male radiation workers, there is an apparent dose response for mortality from circulatory system disease [P < 0.001, ERR=0.65 (90% CI 0.36–0.98) Sv−1]. However there is evidence for inhomogeneity in the apparent dose response (P=0.016), arising principally at cumulative doses in excess of 300 mSv, when the four categories of employment and radiation exposure status are examined separately.

Conclusions

We have found evidence for an association between mortality from non-cancer causes of death, particularly circulatory system disease, and external exposure to ionizing radiation in this cohort. However, the tentative nature of biological mechanisms that might explain such an effect at low chronic doses and the above inhomogeneities in apparent dose–response, mean that the results of our analysis are not consistent with any simple causal interpretation. Further work is required to explain these inhomogeneities, and on the possible role of factors associated with socio-economic status and shift working, before any further conclusions can be drawn.

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