A record-based case–control study of natural background radiation and the incidence of childhood leukaemia and other cancers in Great Britain during 1980–2006

G M Kendall, M P Little, R Wakeford, K J Bunch, J C H Miles, T J Vincent,J R Meara and M F G Murphy

Leukemia (5 June 2012) | doi:10.1038/leu.2012.151


We conducted a large record-based case–control study testing associations between childhood cancer and natural background radiation. Cases (27 447) born and diagnosed in Great Britain during 1980–2006 and matched cancer-free controls (36 793) were from the National Registry of Childhood Tumours. Radiation exposures were estimated for mother’s residence at the child’s birth from national databases, using the County District mean for gamma rays, and a predictive map based on domestic measurements grouped by geological boundaries for radon. There was 12% excess relative risk (ERR) (95% CI 3, 22; two-sided P=0.01) of childhood leukaemia per millisievert of cumulative red bone marrow dose from gamma radiation; the analogous association for radon was not significant, ERR 3% (95% CI −4, 11; P=0.35). Associations for other childhood cancers were not significant for either exposure. Excess risk was insensitive to adjustment for measures of socio-economic status. The statistically significant leukaemia risk reported in this reasonably powered study (power ~50%) is consistent with high-dose rate predictions. Substantial bias is unlikely, and we cannot identify mechanisms by which confounding might plausibly account for the association, which we regard as likely to be causal. The study supports the extrapolation of high-dose rate risk models to protracted exposures at natural background exposure levels.