The British Nuclear Fuels plc facility at Sellafield performs a range of nuclear-related activities. The site has been in operation since 1950 and has, in general, employed a stable work force, many of whom have accumulated relatively high occupational exposures to ionizing radiation. This paper compares the physical dosimetry with two biological end points for evaluating radiation exposure: fluorescence in situ hybridization with whole-chromosome painting probes to quantify stable chromosome aberrations (translocations and insertions), and glycophorin A (GPA) analysis of variant erythrocytes. For the cytogenetic analyses, 81 workers were evaluated in five dose categories, including 23 with minimal radiation exposure (≤50 mSv) and 58 with exposures ranging from 173 to 1108 mSv, all but 3 being >500 mSv. In a univariate analysis, the mean stable chromosome aberration frequencies showed a significant increase with dose category (P = 0.032), and with cumulative dose when dose is treated as a continuous variable (P = 0.015). The slope of the dose response for stable aberrations is 0.79 ± 0.22 aberrations per 100 cells per sievert (adjusted for smoking status), which is less than that observed among atomic bomb survivors, and suggests a dose and dose-rate effectiveness factor for chronic exposure of about 6. Analyses of the data for GPA N/Ø and N/N variants from 36 workers revealed no correlation with dose. Neither was there a correlation between the frequencies of N/Ø GPA variants and stable aberrations, although a weak negative association was observed between N/N variant frequency and stable aberrations (r = -0.38, P = 0.05). These results provide clear evidence for the accumulation of stable aberrations under conditions of chronic occupational exposure to ionizing radiation and show that stable chromosome aberrations are a more sensitive indicator for chronic radiation exposure than GPA variants. In comparison with human studies of brief exposure, chronic low-dose exposures appear substantially less effective for producing somatic effects as reflected by stable chromosome aberrations.

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