By Kate Kelland
LONDON (Reuters) - Despite fears to the contrary, children who live near nuclear power plants have no greater risk of developing leukaemia or a type of cancer known as non-Hodgkin lymphoma, according to a large British study published on Friday.
Researchers who studied some 10,000 children aged under 5 and analyzed birth records for nearly every case of childhood leukaemia in Britain from 1962 to 2007 found no apparent extra risk from living near an atomic power station.
John Bithell of the Childhood Cancer Research Group, who led the study, noted there have been concerns about child leukaemia near nuclear plants in Britain since the 1980s, when a television program reported an excess of cancer in children near the Sellafield plant in north-west England.
There have since been conflicting reports in Britain and other European countries about whether children living near such reactors are at greater risk of developing childhood cancers.
A study on Germany, published in 2007, did find a significantly increased risk. But a 35-year-long survey in Britain by the Committee on the Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment, published in 2001, found no evidence that living near nuclear plants increased the incidence of children developing leukaemia.
Bithell said the findings of his research, published in the British Journal of Cancer, should be reassure the public.
"Our case-control study has considered the birth records for nearly every case of childhood leukaemia born in Britain and, reassuringly, has found no such correlation with proximity to nuclear power plants," he said in a statement.
Leukaemia is a cancer of immature white blood cells that mostly occurs in children between 2 and 4 years old.
It is rare, affecting around 500 children a year in Britain, and experts say 85 to 90 percent can now be cured.
Bithell's research group was funded by the Scottish and English governments and the charity Children with Cancer UK.
They measured the distance children lived from the nearest nuclear plant both at birth and when diagnosed with leukaemia or non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Data on cancer cases came from the National Registry of Childhood Tumours, which has kept records of nearly all children diagnosed since 1962 and is estimated to be more than 99 percent complete for leukaemia cases over the period studied.
Hazel Nunn, head of health information at the charity Cancer Research UK, said the results were "heartening".
"This study supports the findings of the Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment that being born or living near a nuclear power station doesn't lead to more cases of leukaemia and similar cancers in children under 5 in the UK," she said.
"But these results can't rule out any possible risk, so it's still important that we continue to monitor both radiation levels near nuclear power plants and rates of cancer among people who live close by."
(Editing by Paul Taylor)