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Environ Health Perspect. 1993 Oct;101 Suppl 3:113-5.

Radium-226-contaminated drinking water: hypothesis on an exposure pathway in a population with elevated childhood leukemia.

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Department of Medical Physics, University of Bremen, Germany.


A recent epidemiological survey on childhood malignant disease in the region of Ellweiler, Rheinland-Pfalz, Germany, revealed a significantly increased incidence of childhood leukemia, but observed incidences of lymphoma and solid tumors were normal. Established risk factors such as individual exposure to chemicals as well as hereditary genetic disorders were ruled out in interviews with the patients or their families. The general population in the region, however, is subjected to considerable doses of ionizing radiation due to high levels of external gamma radiation and high activities of indoor radon. Radiation-specific chromosome aberrations were found in one of two healthy siblings and one father of leukemia patients as well as in any of three probands living in houses with high indoor radon activities. Radon and natural gamma radiation, however, cannot explain the geographical pattern of the cases. Four out of seven cases were observed in two particular villages near a uranium processing plant. The drinking water of these villages partly came from a small river that was contaminated with radium-226 washed out from the dumps of the uranium plant. Only sparse measurements of 226Ra are available, but derived red bone marrow doses for children in the two villages obtained from a simple radio-ecological model show the significance of the drinking water pathway. Prenatal 226Ra exposure of fetuses due to placental transfer and accumulation may have led to significant doses and may explain the excess cases of childhood leukemia in the region even in quantitative terms.

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