Stillbirths among offspring of male radiation workers at Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant

Lancet. 1999 Oct 23;354(9188):1407-14. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(99)04138-0.


Background: Ionising radiation is a known mutagen, but few studies have examined transgenerational effects of paternal exposure in human beings. The workforce at the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant in the county of Cumbria, UK, is the most highly exposed workforce in western Europe and North America. This study, which is part of a larger programme of work investigating the health of the children of the Sellafield workforce, set out to find whether there was evidence of an association between stillbirth risk and paternal exposure to ionising radiation.

Methods: We collected details from birth registration documents for all singleton 248,097 livebirths and 3715 stillbirths in the county of Cumbria 1950-89. Within this cohort the 130 stillbirths and 9078 livebirths to partners of male radiation workers employed at Sellafield were identified. Logistic regression was used to analyse the relation between stillbirth risk and father's preconceptional radiation exposure, with adjustment for social class, year of birth, father's age, and birth order.

Findings: A significant positive association was found between the risk of a baby being stillborn and the father's total exposure to external ionising radiation before conception (adjusted odds ratio per 100 mSv 1.24 [95% CI 1.04-1.45], p=0.009). The risk was higher for stillbirths with congenital anomaly and was highest for the nine stillbirths with neural-tube defects. The statistical models predicted that, were the association to be interpreted as causal, between 0 and 31.9 of the 130 stillbirths to the workforce may be attributable to father's radiation exposure.

Interpretation: The findings of an increased risk of stillbirth with increasing paternal occupational exposure to external radiation are qualitatively consistent with those from animal models, though the risk estimate is higher. Although we cannot exclude the possibility of an unmeasured risk factor for stillbirth, confounded with paternal preconceptional irradiation, extensive checks confirmed that the statistical models were a good fit to the data and there was not statistical evidence of unmeasured factors.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Cohort Studies
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Radiation
  • England / epidemiology
  • Female
  • Fetal Death / epidemiology*
  • Humans
  • Linear Models
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Occupational Exposure / adverse effects*
  • Odds Ratio
  • Paternal Exposure / adverse effects*
  • Power Plants*
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Outcome / epidemiology
  • Radiation, Ionizing*