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Wednesday 26th October 2016

Nuclear tests link to thyroid cancer

21st September 2010

People living in Polynesian islands who were exposed to radioactive fallout from French atmospheric nuclear tests in the 1960s and 1970s have a slight risk of developing thyroid cancer, according to a recent French study.


After the blasts, Polynesians were exposed to radiation through eating vegetables and drinking milk that was contaminated by 41 above-ground blasts.

However, experts said that the risk was too low to account for.

The study is the first to measure the carcinogenic after-effects of the above-ground nuclear testing which France employed between 1966 and 1975.

Using data provided by the French military, the researchers estimated people's exposure to radioactive fallout.

They found that the average radiation dose for a single person under age 15 was about 1.8 milligrays.

Standard chemotherapy treatments usually expose various parts of the body to quantities numbering in the tens of grays, though a dose of five grays over the entire body is generally considered enough to cause death.

Some 5.2% of the Polynesians who later went on to develop cancer were exposed to doses higher than 10 milligrays.

In total, the French researchers were able to establish a correlation between above-ground nuclear testing and 10 of the 229 cancers they studied.

The researchers also estimated that about 10 additional, linked cases would eventually surface.

The researchers showed that people were exposed to less radiation than had been typically assumed to cause thyroid cancer development in children and adolescents.

Study leader Florent de Vathaire, a researcher at the Gustave Roussy Cancer Institute in Paris, said the fact that there were still incidences of thyroid cancer could be due to the fact that Polynesians were more sensitive than average, or to a miscalculation in the original estimates.

The researchers requested that the French military declassify their files, so that they could get a more accurate picture of the true cost of above-ground nuclear testing.

They said that, while the risk seemed low based on their limited data, releasing more information would improve the reliability of their estimates, and possibly show that the estimates had been set too low.

Some of the measurements the researchers used were originally provided by the French government several decades ago.

Polynesia was not the only world region in which the tests were carried out, however.

French scientists also carried out four above-ground and 13 below-ground nuclear tests in the Algerian Sahara, from 1960 to 1966.

Just this year, France passed laws which allowed both military veterans and civilians to seek compensation for carcinogenic radiation due to test programmes.

Usually, risk factors for thyroid cancer include family history and obesity. In women, multiple pregnancies may also contribute to the development of the disease.

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