A geographical study of thyroid cancer incidence in north-west England following the Windscale nuclear reactor fire of 1957

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

  • External authors:
  • RJQ McNally
  • Peter W James
  • Nermine Basta
  • Robert Alston
  • Mark Pearce
  • Alex T Elliott


The Windscale nuclear reactor fire at Sellafield, United Kingdom, in October 1957 led to an uncontrolled release of iodine-131 (radioactive half-life, 8 days) into the atmosphere. Contamination from the accident was most pronounced in the counties of Cumbria and Lancashire, north-west England. Radioiodine concentrates in the thyroid gland producing an excess risk of thyroid cancer, notably among those exposed as children, which persists into later life. For an initial investigation of thyroid cancer incidence in north-west England, data were obtained on cases of thyroid cancer among people born during 1929-1973 and diagnosed during 1974- 2012 while resident in England, together with corresponding populations. Incidence rate ratios (IRRs), with Poisson 95% confidence intervals (CIs), compared thyroid cancer incidence rates in Cumbria and in Lancashire with those in the rest of England. For those aged <20 years in 1958, a statistically significantly increased IRR was found for those diagnosed during 1974-2012 while living in Cumbria (IRR = 1.29; 95% CI 1.09-1.52), but the equivalent IRR for Lancashire was marginally nonsignificantly decreased (IRR = 0.91; 95% CI 0.80-1.04). This pattern of IRRs was also apparent for earlier births, and the significantly increased IRR in Cumbria extended to individuals born in 1959-1963, who would not have been exposed to iodine-131 from the Windscale accident. Moreover, significant overdispersion was present in the temporal distributions of the IRRs, so that Poisson CIs substantially underestimate statistical uncertainties. Consequently, although further investigations are required to properly understand the unusual patterns of thyroid cancer IRRs in Cumbria and Lancashire, the results of this preliminary study are not consistent with an effect of exposure to iodine-131 from the Windscale accident.

Bibliographical metadata

Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Radiological Protection
Early online date28 Nov 2016
Publication statusPublished - 2016