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Sun, Apr 29, 2001 - Page 2 News List

Radioactive rebar linked to cancer

PUBLIC HEALTH Medical experts fear for the health of former residents of radiation contaminated buildings who may no longer be checking up on their health

By Chiu Yu-Tzu  /  STAFF REPORTER

A teenage sufferer of skin cancer caused by exposure to radiation.

FILE PHOTO: RADIATION SAFETY AND PROTECTION ASSOCIATION TAIWAN

A five-year study of the incidence of disease among residents of radiation-contaminated buildings was recently completed, showing that the possibility of chromosome aberration -- damage to DNA -- was proportional to long-term exposure to low-dose radiation.

From November 1995 to June 2000, a research team at National Yang Ming University (陽明大學) kept track of more than 4,100 sample people who once lived in buildings that had been constructed in Taipei City between 1982 and 1983 using radioactive steel reinforcing bars.

A high incidence of diverse cancers was discovered among samples taken from the group.

The researchers said that cancer could be induced by various factors, including personal lifestyle and environmental and occupational conditions. Exposure to radiation exceeding safety limits is also a factor that deserves close attention, they said.

"We found that DNA damage and chromosome aberration was closely related to samples' long-term exposure to low-dose radiation," Chang Wu-shou (張武修), leader of the research team, told the Taipei Times.

The 4,100 sample patients, who have been receiving treatment at Taipei Municipal Jen-ai Hospital, are among some 7,800 residents recorded by the Taipei City Government as victims of radiation contamination.

Eighty-nine of the 4,100 samples were diagnosed with cancer, including cervical cancer, breast cancer, liver cancer, leukemia and thyroid cancer. Researchers said that high incidence of the disease might be attributed to chronic low-dose radiation exposure.

Over the course of the research period, 39 of the 89 cancer sufferers died.

Researchers said that the situation did not mean that the mortality from cancer in the group was higher than that in other population groups because there was no direct link between cancer and the patients' exposure to low-dose radiation.

Researchers, however, concluded that excessive radiation did have a negative impact on humans.

"For example, we discovered that the height of children who had been exposed to radiation [exceeding the safety limits] was generally below average," said Chang, an environmental health sciences professor. He also said that the incidence of cataracts (白內障) among children who lived in radiation-contaminated buildings was higher than the national level.

"We also concluded that radiation causes damage to white blood cells, weakening people's immune systems," Chang said.

Unpleasant reminder

Chang's study, supported by the National Health Research Institute (國家衛生研究院), might raise public awareness of safety issues regarding radiation. The research, however, has not been welcomed by the Atomic Energy Council (AEC, 原能會), the government's nuclear watchdog responsible for everything from radioactive medical waste to nuclear waste, because the history behind the research was the last thing officials of the council wanted to be reminded of.

Officials from the council contacted Chang several times, asserting that his research on low-level radiation would not result in any new scientific discoveries. They told him that a low dose of radiation has been demonstrated to be beneficial to humans.

Chang, however, said the council should be ashamed of itself for discouraging him from conducting his research because Taiwan was the only country which could provide such samples for medical research.

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