What is Causing Sark’s Cancers?

On 7 January 2013, Guernsey Press reported an unnamed consultant from Southampton General Hospital, who had treated two Sark youngsters with Burkitt’s lymphoma, expressing concern that these cases had happened in such a small area. It is certainly the case that we have a high incidence of cancers on Sark, not only of Burkitt’s lymphoma, but also of brain cancer.

According to Cancer Research UK, 9,100 people were diagnosed with brain or other central nervous tumours in the United Kingdom in 2010. Based on the Office for National Statistics‘ estimate of the United Kingdom’s population having been 62.3 million in 2010 and Sark’s population being about 600, this equates to about 8–9 cases of brain and other central nervous system tumours on Sark per century, or less than one person per decade.

Cancer Research UK also reports that the number of cases of brain and other central nervous system tumours in the constituent countries of the United Kingdom varied between 6.9 per 100,000 population in England and 8.1 per 100,000 population in Wales throughout the year 2008. This equates to between 4 and 5 cases per century for a place the size of Sark.

The American National Cancer Institute reports similar statistics for the USA. In 2012, 22,910 new cases of brain tumour were reported in the USA. Based on the U.S. Census estimate that the population of the USA was 314 million in 2012, this equates to between 4 and 5 cases of brain tumour per century for a place the size of Sark.

Yet we probably have had between 4 and 5 cases of brain tumour, not over the course of the last century, but over the course of the last few years.

The standard Poisson distribution model for rare events tells us that the probability of having 4 independent cases of brain tumour in a place the size of Sark over a 10 year period due to random chance (coincidence) is about 1 in 1,000. The probability of 5 independent cases occurring over the same period due to random chance is about 1 in 10,000.

The Chairman of the Public Health Committee of Chief Pleas David Melling immediately pointed the finger at mobile telephone and Tetra masts and said:

The collated information confirms that any tests, surveys etc. are best undertaken by an independent body, not connected with any of the above.

What could be the cause of such a high incidence rate of cancer?

On reading the original Guernsey Press article, we contacted the Southampton General Hospital and tried to make contact with the consultant who had expressed the concern to try to find out more information. The hospital’s switchboard told us they had two consultant oncologists working at their hospital, Dr Andrew Davis and Professor Peter Johnson. We wrote to one of them and received the following reply:

I am not sure who the consultant might be who commented on the occurrence of two cases of Burkitt lymphoma on Sark: it was not me or …, so far as either of us can remember, although it is always possible that something we said was repeated out of context.
While this is a rare tumour type, it is of course quite possible that these cases occurred by chance, given the very small number: we have seen many apparent ‘clusters’ of cancer in the past without ever identifying a plausible cause.

We tried to put this assertion to the Poisson distribution test. Unfortunately, incidence statistics for Burkitt’s lymphoma do not appear to be as good as those for brain tumours, and the incidence rate appears to vary widely between countries. The Scott Hampton Foundation for Burkitt’s Research puts the number of cases in the United Kingdom at 200 per year. The American National Cancer Research Institute estimates the incidence rate to be between 5 and 20 cases per 100,000 inhabitants in Uganda and 0.4 cases per 100,000 inhabitants in the USA. We also know that the disease is far more common in children than in adults and that it is linked to the Epstein Barr virus (the same herpes family virus which causes mononucleosis / glandular fever). Exposure to the virus appears to increase the likelihood of developing Burkitt’s lymphoma .

The Poisson distribution analysis estimates the probability of 2 independent cases occurring on a place the size of Sark over a 10 year period due to random chance being 22% (based on the incidence rate of 20 cases per 100,000 population per year), 3% (based on the incidence rate of 5 cases per 100,000 population per year), or 1 in 3,500 (based on the incidence rate of 0.4 cases per 100,000 population per year). Now Burkitt’s lymphoma is a type of cancer and all cancers are caused by genetic mutations so the normal genome one starts with plays a very important role. Due to Sark’s long relative isolation over a period of centuries, Sark’s population has a reduced amount of genetic diversity. There is less difference in different individuals’ genomes than in a typical population; therefore, cases of diseases where genetic predisposition plays an important factor are unlikely to be independent; they are likely to be positively correlated (i.e. if one of the people has the disease, it makes it at least somewhat more likely for the person to have it too). Such correlation would increase the above probabilities. If the correlation were perfect, the above probabilities would be 36% (based on an incidence rate of 20 cases per 100,000 population per year), 22% (based on an incidence rate of 5 cases per 100,000 population per year) and 2% (based on an incidence rate of 0.4 cases per 100,000 population per year). Due to the available statistics being imperfect, it is difficult to precisely estimate the likelihood of two people on Sark developing Burkitt’s lymphoma purely due to random chance. Nevertheless, analysis using a Poisson distribution model provides additional comfort that the statement made by the Southampton General’s consultant — which would have been made on the basis of his extensive knowledge and practical experience of this field — that such a cluster could be the result of a coincidence is eminently plausible.

The high incidence rate of brain cancer, seems less likely to be the result of a coincidence due to the larger number of individuals who have developed it. Yet still a reduced genetic diversity could be partly responsible.

But who knows! Let us assume that, despite the above considerations, the high incidence of cancers is not a coincidence and that there is a specific cause. What could the cause be?

1) It is unlikely to be the mobile telephone mast. Mobile telephone base stations emit less than 100 Watts of electromagnetic radiation (the same as a light bulb; in comparison, an infrared heater emits 400 – 1200 Watts of electromagnetic radiation power, although at much lower frequency) in the same frequency spectrum — and, within that spectrum, of the same shape — as a mobile telephone handset.

A mobile telephone handset emits 2 Watts of power at peak, but adjusting power output to the minimum required for reliable communication, so on average, a mobile telephone handset emits 1/4 of a Watt of electromagnetic radiation.

Although this is much less than the power output of a mobile telephone mast — a mobile telephone handset emits 1/4%–2% of the power emitted by a mobile telephone mast — the power received by a person’s body equals the power output of the power source, divided by the square of the distance of the person from that source. The reason for this is that, as electromagnetic radiation travels away from an omnidirectional source, it travels at a uniform speed (the speed of light in air) in all directions and so as is spreads, the same amount of power[1] is spread over a sphere of ever increasing radius. Its power at any given distance (R) from the source is uniformly distributed over the sphere of radius R centred on the power source, and that sphere has area proportional to the square of R. Although the power output of a telephone handset is 1/4%–2% of the power output of a mobile telephone mast, the handset is only a few centimetres away from a person’s ear, while the emitter located on the mast, even if the person is standing right underneath it, is at least tens of metres away. So even at ground level, immediately below the mast, the ratio of the two distances is at least a thousand to one, and the ratio of the squares of the distances is at least a million to one. Therefore the amount of power received by a human body standing immediately underneath a mobile telephone mast is at least 2,500 times less than the amount of power of electromagnetic radiation the same human body receives from the mobile telephone handset held next to its ear.

A person standing 100 metres away from the mast receives a much lesser amount of electromagnetic radiation still, another 100 times smaller than if standing right underneath the mast, in fact (and 250,000 times less than the total radiation power he is receiving from his handset). 1,000 metres away from the mast, the amount is another 10,000 times smaller and 25 million times smaller than the total amount of radiation power received from one’s mobile telephone handset.

Even if a person was standing immediately underneath a mobile telephone mast 24 hours a day, the total amount of electromagnetic radiation energy he would receive from the mast would be the same as that from making a call on a mobile telephone 35 seconds in duration. Note also that a mobile telephone handset is always emitting some radiation, even when not making a call, so if you keep it in your pocket, you will be getting exposure continuously.

The two individuals affected by Burkitt’s lymphoma live, as far as is known to us, several kilometres away from the mast. At a distance of 1,000 from the mast, the total amount of electromagnetic energy received by a person over the course of 1 year is equivalent to that received from a mobile telephone handset during a 1 second telephone call.

In order for a mobile telephone mast to expose a person 1,000 metres away to the same amount radiation as his mobile telephone handset, it would have to emit 250 Megawatts of power, the maximum power output of a medium to large hydroelectric power station. Sark Electricity Company, for example, has a theoretical maximum power output of 1.6 Megawatts, but in practice, the output has never exceeded 0.6 Megawatts. Instead of a light bulb, the thing on the top of that mast would have to be a medium to large hydroelectric power station.

Numerous studies have been conducted trying to ascertain the likelihood of a cancer link to mobile telephone masts. All have concluded that such a link was highly unlikely.

2) Another possible cause which has been named is the Cap de la Hague nuclear power plant in France. This, too, is highly unlikely, as in order for any radioactive waste that might be escaping the power plant to cause harm, it would have to be the heavy radioactive elements that would have to travel over (and upwards) to Sark, several kilometres sideways, and, which is more difficult, a hundred metres upwards.

3) Radon gas being emitted by granite which is commonly used in construction on Sark has also been named as a possible culprit. Many granites contain radioactive elements like radium, uranium and thorium, which undergo radioactive decay and emit the colourless, odourless radioactive gas radon in the process. While several green web sites like The Daily Green and NaturalNews have reported that some commercial granite countertops have been found to emit radiation high enough to expose a person to radiation equivalent to a year’s worth of exposure to normal background radiation in only a few months if spending just two hours per day in close proximity, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — and agency not known for the slowness of their reaction when there is a real environmental problem — has this to say about the radiation risk of granite:

… since granite is generally not very porous, less radon is likely to escape from it than from a more porous stone such as sandstone. It’s important to know that radon originating in the soil beneath homes is a more common problem and a far larger public health risk than radon from granite building materials. … it is extremely unlikely that granite countertops in homes could increase the radiation dose above that [sic] the normal, natural background dose that comes from soil and rocks.

NaturalNews, while warning of granite radiation risks, also provides the following illuminating piece of information:

The Marble Institute of America calls any worries about radiation from granite countertops “ludicrous,” saying that any possible levels are insignificant compared with background radiation from space and the Earth’s crust, or even X-rays and smoke detectors.

Our readers will be reminded that some of the same people who have now turned their attention to mobile telephone masts, not long ago made all the hotel operators install smoke detectors everywhere.

4) Some people have suggested that the cause of the cancers are Sark Estate Management’s vineyards. Since these vineyards have only been around for a period of time far too short to have any effect on cancer statistics, such suggestions cannot be taken seriously.

We are not qualified to say what the cause of a high rate of cancer is on Sark, nor do we believe is anyone else on Sark. We believe that getting to the bottom of this problem exceeds the resources and the knowledge we have available on Sark. Nevertheless, Lymphomation, a web site dedicated to Lymphoma states as the most likely culprit to be:

Factors associated with an increase risk of developing a lymphoma: … Chemical exposures – chronic exposures to dioxins

Dioxins are highly cancerogenic toxic compounds released during incomplete burning of plastics — burning of the kind done at our incinerator at the harbour.

But this incinerator is operated by Douzaine Public Works Sub-committee member Dave Melling. The same Dave Melling who also happens to be the Chairman of the Public Health Committee. And what did venerable Conseiller Melling have to say about this issue? Guernsey Press on 22 January 2013, reported as follows:

For the time being, Conseiller Melling said the testing would be limited to the masts before possibly looking at other issues, such as radon gas — which comes from granite — or the incinerator. ‘However, we could not solve the problem of radon gas and I don’t believe the incinerator is likely to be responsible for anything like that.’

Conseiller Melling, who operates the incinerator wearing his Public Works Sub-committee, tells us, wearing his Public Health Committee hat that “I don’t believe the incinerator is likely to be responsible for anything like that.” Do you believe that Conseiller Melling’s experience and his job makes him qualified to reach scientific conclusions like this? Do you believe that his job of running the incinerator makes him independent enough to reach conclusions like this?

Perhaps we should remind Conseiller Melling of his own words:

The collated information confirms that any tests, surveys etc. are best undertaken by an independent body, not connected with any of the above.

Do these words apply only to decisions, tests and surveys being made on the effects of mobile telephone masts, or of the incinerator too?

Lymphomation, an independent organization dedicating its time to gathering information about lymphoma, tells us that dioxins are one of its most likely causes. Dave Melling, a person dedicating a significant proportion of his time to incompletely burning our plastic rubbish which releases dioxins into the air, tells us that he doesn’t believe “the incinerator is likely to be responsible for anything like that.” Who do you believe?

We don’t know about you, but we are not particularly comfortable about people like Conseiller Dave Melling and Conseiller Diane Baker making decisions which dictate how we should be looking after our health and spending public money affecting our healthcare. Traditionally, Sark people have been free to make our own decisions about our healthcare, free from government interference. Historically, Sark has had a number of highly accomplished and educated people in Chief Pleas, yet they never sought to interfere in this area of our lives. But recently, we have seen legislation introduced which gives people like Conseiller Baker and Conseiller Melling the power to regulate health professions on Sark. Now public money is going to be spent on a red herring assessing the safety of mobile telephone masts. And compulsory health insurance, to be run by these same people, is now also being proposed. What do these people know about healthcare and what makes them think they can make better decisions which affect you and me than you and me ourselves can make for ourselves?

1. Strictly speaking, the total amount of power spread over a larger sphere, further away from the source, is in fact smaller due to absorption of electromagnetic radiation by the atmosphere, and falls exponentially with the distance from the source, i.e. much faster than with the square of the distance. However, atmosphere is mostly transparent to frequencies used by mobile telephony, so this effect is not noticeable at the short distances we are discussing. Nevertheless, the effect only gives our conclusions even more support.

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