IndexIn The Press

A diverse collections of references to or by Stuart Neilson in the popular press.

Voting in the referendum

Irish Times, 14 May 2018

Sir, - The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution is a severe burden on disabled people, who are more often unemployed, have fewer financial supports, have restricted access to travel and more often have their wishes ignored in the event of a crisis pregnancy. However, disabled people are more likely to experience crisis pregnancy due to limited sex education, limited awareness of proper contraceptive use and vulnerability to abuse.

As an adult with Asperger syndrome, with one mature child with Asperger syndrome, I am acutely aware of the moral surveillance of disabled people. Only 51 per cent of the Irish population agree that we have the same right to sexual fulfilment as everyone else, and only 37 per cent agree that we should be permitted to have children (National Disability Authority, 2011).

Disabled people are entitled to the same choices in sexuality and reproduction as everyone else. Equality of access to abortion services is a step towards disabled autonomy. - Yours, etc.

The "Irish Lottery"

New Scientist, 26 May 2012

WHOOPS! Feedback was momentarily taken in by the website, which promises that "to improve your chances of winning the Irish lottery we have compiled a STATS section based on previous draws". That prompted reader Terry Devlin to ask whether the Irish Lottery had "discovered some previously unknown aspect of the laws of probability" (21 April).

Stuart Neilson writes to point out that the site name is registered to one Mark O'Meara, not to the Irish Lottery. That can be found at addresses including - which is, indeed, registered to An Post National Lottery Company, to whom we apologise.

So we tried to work out why O'Meara goes to the trouble and expense of maintaining that unofficial website. We discover that he is also associated with sites such as, and which, like the irishlotto site, offer you the chance to buy tickets online. If you're in the UK, the minimum of four "Euro millions" tickets will set you back £16 - compared with £8 through the official site.

And if O'Meara wants people to entrust him with their credit card information, he needs to do some work to repair his online reputation. A quick search throws up an article in the Belfast Telegraph that reports on many emails purporting to come from someone of the same name, at the same address in Dublin, Ireland. They offer to help people claim alleged lottery winnings - in one case (at least) asking for an advance fee of more than £500. Oh, yes, and for your proof of identity, such as a picture of your driving licence - see the lotteries scam site at

The moral seems to be: steer clear of lotteries.

Ketchup Ingredients

New Scientist, 7 April 2010

Sex criminals who reoffend

Irish Independent Letters, Saturday 9 December 2006

It would be a logical error to presume that the low rate of re-conviction of released sex offenders "reveals them to be the prisoners least likely to reoffend", as has been stated.

What Professor Ian O'Donnell's research (Irish Independent, December 6) convincingly demonstrates is that the tiny subset of sex offenders who are identified, charged, prosecuted and ultimately convicted are unlikely to be convicted again within a short space of time.

Adult rapists are the most readily convicted category of sexual criminal, of whom 63pc are identified, 27pc prosecuted and just 12pc convicted (NUIG Department of Law research reported in the Dail, May 19 2004).

Because less than one tenth of rapes remain unreported, the real conviction rate of offenders is less than one oper cent. Other sexual criminals are less often partners of their victim. Some are influential (parents, relatives and authority figures) or strangers, so the conviction rate is probably far below the one in every hundred of adult rapists.


Trojan Horse is no defence

Irish Independent Letters, Monday November 20th 2006

The issue has been raised of a Trojan Horse program, inadvertantly dowloaded from the internet, being responsible for the further downloading of child pornography, without the computer owner's knowledge or consent. This defence has been entertained in two cases in the United Kingdom. The accused was acquitted in one of those cases, wrongly hailed as a victory by the self-styled computer expert who proposed the Trojan defence.

The prosecution withdrew the case because the history of the second-hand computer was impossible to verify, because exclusive access to it by the accused could not be proven and because the specific images on the computer could not be reliably linked with other prosecution evidence of internet activity.

Prosecutor David Sapieca stated that "we don't accept the conclusions of the defence expert report, but there were already other issues in the case regarding the history of the computer itself. We cannot show that Mr Green downloaded the images on to the computer, so the Crown reluctantly offer no evidence in this case."

It is notable that, of the estimated 350,000 people identified by the FBI as having downloaded child pornography from the same site that Judge Curtin is alleged to have accessed, the Trojan Horse defence has been used only twice and has not succeeded on either occasion.

If such a Trojan programme did exist, then Irish internet service providers would undoubtedly be plagued by irate complaints from innocent customers, which they are not.


Bullying sweeps universities

Wave of corporate bullying sweeps universities

It is a fact that in the universities, grievance investigators are under no official obligation to apply disciplinary procedures with regard for precedent or uniformity. It is therefore not surprising that serious allegations of, for example, physical assault, sexual harassment, censorship of mail and interference with promotion procedures are not dealt with in an even-handed way.

Some colleagues against whom such serious allegations are made will be suspended immediately before they are given the opportunity to defend themselves, while others who are accused of a similarly serious misdemeanour will continue to wield power and position (and even be promoted) during the course of the investigation.

In some cases, complaints are never officially concluded (the complainant is never informed of the outcome), while in others, huge books of evidence are hastily and efficiently compiled.

How do we square these flagrant inconsistencies and injustices with the prevalent trend among heads of universities to persuade us, usually through the medium of an expensive glossy brochure, that we are part of humane communities which respect the dignity of the individual?

It is clear this is mere double-speak and it is one of the most terrible manifestations of the wave of corporate bullying currently sweeping through the universities as heads and their officers instigate radical changes without due consultation and academic consensus.

There is a crisis of totalitarianism in the Irish universities, the very places where freedom of thought and enlightenment are supposed to flourish, and the way in which the disciplinary procedures are implemented is a dreadful symptom of this. To address this situation, the disciplinary procedures should be implemented by a truly independent regulatory body with due regard for precedent and consistency. Such a body should also undertake an independent review of the way in which these procedures have been applied in every Irish university over the last 10-to-15 years.

To choose complacency over active remedy will only make each and every one of us yet more complicit in realising the dark warning articulated by Conor Cruise O'Brien almost 40 years ago that we have become "a society maimed through the systematic corruption of its intelligence".

Dr Sarah Alyn Stacey
French Department, Trinity College, Dublin 2

Irish Examiner Letters, 18 October 2006

No set standard for university investigation

In any internal complaint, the university's procedures are inevitably prejudiced towards the party considered closest to the corporate identity, usually (but not necessarily) the more senior party. There is no required standard of investigation, no right of appeal and no independent assessment of the handling of complaints.

The other party is vilified, misrepresented and characterised as disloyal to the university's ethos and, in the last resort, described as mentally unstable.

The complainants are then threatened with legal actions for unspecified calumnies against the university's reputation should they repeat their complaints outside its walls.

Bullying thrives on secrecy. The lack of accountability and transparency at UCC has evolved a vindictive management culture driven by self-interest, fear and intimidation.

Dr Stuart Neilson
York Hill, Cork


Letters, The Sunday Times, November 27 2005

Because a few thousand clergy are responsible for "only" 4% of childhood sexual abuse in Ireland (Letters, last week) we should stop savaging them in some supposed hidden agenda of destroying the Catholic church?

Absolutely not, because these figures show that priests are 60 times more likely to sexually assault children than the 4m laity who are responsible for the remaining 96% of abuse. It is as irresponsible to leave a child in the unsupervised care of a priest as it is to leave a child in the care of a convicted sex offender. It is not hysterical to be cautious when one in every 10 have been shown to be paedophiles.

Dr Stuart Neilson, Cork

Letters, The Sunday Times, November 20 2005


It turns out from the Ferns Report, one commissioned by the government 2 1/2 years ago, that clergy are responsible for only 4% and laity for 96% of reported child abuse in Ireland. As I always suspected, behind the white collar, clergy are human like the rest of us. They too suffer from crippling personality disorders that lead to dastardly acts.

It is, of course, a little disappointing that they are no better than the rest of us. If we search hard enough we can expect to find that clergy rob banks and murder people too, just like any other section of society.

Is it not time that we stopped interminably savaging the hand that mediates eternal salvation to us all, as well as to itself?

Brian Flanagan, Buncrana, Co. Donegal

HYSTERICAL RESPONSE: Congratulations on your balanced reportage of the Ferns Report. Sue Denham's comments in relation to the juvenile Hot Press article (Comment, November 6) were spot on. The hysteria emanating from most of the Irish media was more embarrassing than anything else. Over 96% of abuse is perpetrated by the non-religious. One doesn't have to be paranoid to suspect an agenda by much of the Irish media for its fixation on the Catholic church.

Eric Conway, Navan, Co. Meath

The "Nutrition and Health" Foundation, an industrial public relations body

Vested interests in health, Irish Times letters, 30 September 2005

Madam, -
Dr Louise Sullivan (September 27th) is unsettled by my "view" that a body entirely funded by and composed of members of the processed foods and drinks industries would do anything so natural as promote their own interests. She also appears unaware that the unsettling text I quoted (verbatim) was from the Nutrition and Health Foundation's own website.
If she is concerned by the possibility of a public perception that the funders' self-interest might conflict with scientific impartiality on health issues, I suggest that the representative body should choose a less misleading name. - Yours etc.
Dr Stuart Neilson, York Terrace, Cork

Nutrition and health, Irish Times letters, 27 September 2005

Madam, - Contrary to the view of Dr Stuart Neilson (September 21st), the Nutrition and Health Foundation does not "represent the interests" of the food industry.

The NHF has the support of a wide range of groups which are working together to improve the health of Irish society. These include industry, Government, State agencies, scientists and health professionals. The work of the foundation is based exclusively on scientific evidence and knowledge, and promotes the need for a healthy, balanced diet alongside physical activity.

The NHF launched the results of its consumer survey "Health and Lifestyle Research 2005" on September 13th. This independently conducted research gives an important in-depth analysis of consumer attitude towards diet and health issues in Ireland, and will provide the basis for the foundation's activities.

The NHF welcomes comment from any individual or group to the address below. - Yours, etc.,

Dr Louise Sullivan, Manager, Nutrition and Health Foundation, Lower Baggot Street, Dublin 2

Information about eating, Irish Times letters, 21 September 2005

Madam, - Your Edition of September 14th reports the findings of the Nutrition and Health Foundation that we are in denial about our poor health and are short of time to exercise, despite having generally high awareness of healthy eating - all very true I am sure.

However, we should be aware that the NHF "strives to provide the link between the Irish food and drink industry and the consumer and other stakeholders by dissemination of evidence based information on nutrition and physical activity" (website:, and represents the interests of Batchelors, Cantrell & Cochrane, Cadburys, Coca-Cola, Guinness, McDonald's, Tayto and Wrigley, among others.

While accepting that their information is evidence-based, we should also take it in moderation and as part of a balanced information intake - and with a large pinch of salt. Yours, etc.

Dr Stuart Neilson, York Terrace, York Hill, Cork

Postcode taskforce for Ireland

Praising postcodes - letters, Irish Independent 24/05/2005

Sir - I lived with the benefits of universal postcoding for many years in several countries and can well appreciate the advantages of providing addresses with a simple, memorable code. I also appreciate the benefit of calling Bord Gais, the ESB or Eircom to a precise location, as well as the commercial incentives for credit rating (assessing an individual or family, no matter how individual their spelling or addressing) and of risk estimation (judging people by their proximate neighbours).

What worries me in your report (News) is the question of "how such a system will be run . . . ownership, management and funding of public postcodes". If there is to be a public and universal system, then it must be owned, managed and understood by the public, not by an acquisitive financial industry.

We already have the Ordnance Survey of Ireland six-digit grid reference system that identifies any point in Ireland to the nearest kilometre. Throughout most of the country, this identifies only a handful of premises. It is simple to provide additional digits in densely populated areas from publicly owned maps. Save us from yet another financially focused task force.

Dr Stuart Neilson,
York Terrace,
Cork (Grid reference: 168 072!)

UCC Needs Investigation

Letters, Irish Independent 3 February 2005

Sir - Yet again the actions of the President's Office at University College Cork have become national news. The refusal to supply any responses to members of staff at all levels in UCC - from the former president down to junior academics - and the unbelievably high-handed actions of Prof Wrixon and his office are a shameful display by the administration of a public institution. Surely by now there are sufficient grounds to warrant a full and impartial investigation by an external visitor, as required by the Universities Act 1997?

Dr Stuart Neilson,
St Patrick's Hospital,
James Street,
Dublin 8

Postcode system "would double junk mail volumes"

Letters, Sunday Times 30 January 2005

Anyone objecting to unwanted junk mail should simply express their wish to receive no more and return all the offending material in the reply-paid envelope provided (or Freepost to the offending party's headquarters), as I do with such rubbish.
Dr Stuart Neilson,
St Patrick's Hospital,
James Street,
Dublin 8

Tough times at UCC

Irish Independent Letters, Thursday November 25, 2004

Sir - I read professor Gerry Wrixon's whingeing about the poor resourcing of third-level education and, yet again, his absurd claim that resource limitations have created a sub-mediocre university at UCC. Nothing could be further from the truth. UCC contains many fine minds, produces a great deal of talented graduates and contributes above its weight to the academic world - but sadly not to UCC's reputation.

This is entirely the consequence of the ideology, most recently espoused in the so-called 'OECD Report' and its economist-inspired notions that privatisation and income generation are the sole measure of 'quality'. The report showed little understanding of the academic world and none whatsoever of the arts, humanities or sciences - hardly a surprise, as all its authors were civil servants, accountants and economists with limited experience of university administration or research.

There is certainly excellence throughout the undergraduate, research and lecturing members of the UCC community, but they do not display it within UCC because they are driven to excel elsewhere. UCC's sense of community is itself under intolerable strain.

I'm sure any of us could name umpteen UCC graduates or former members of staff excelling in the highest echelons of worldwide academia, industry and government.

It is truly saddening that this talent is not nurtured and rewarded within UCC, an institute that has the potential for international excellence in many fields.

Dr Stuart Neilson,
York Terrace,

Government must deal with Trojan Horse theory in Curtin case

Letters, The Irish Examiner, Friday May 28, 2004

Carl Beame raises the issue of a Trojan Horse program, inadvertantly dowloaded from the internet, being responsible for the further dowloading of child pornography, without the computer owner's knowledge or consent. This defence has been entertained in two cases in the United Kingdom. The accused was acquitted in one of those cases, wrongly hailed as a victory by the self-styled computer expert who proposed the Trojan defence.

The prosecution withdrew the case because the history of the second-hand computer was impossible to verify, because exclusive access to it by the accused could not be proven and because the specific images on the computer could not be reliably linked with other prosecution evidence of internet activity. Prosecutor David Sapieca stated that "we don't accept the conclusions of the defence expert report, but there were already other issues in the case regarding the history of the computer itself. We cannot show that Mr Green downloaded the images on to the computer, so the Crown reluctantly offer no evidence in this case."

It is notable that, of the estimated 350,000 people identified by the FBI as having downloaded child pornography from the same Wonderland site that Judge Curtin is alleged to have accessed, the Trojan Horse defence has been used only twice and has not succeeded on either occasion. If such a Trojan programme did exist, then Irish internet service providers would undoubtedly be plagued by irate complaints from innocent customers, which they are not.

Stuart Neilson
Summerhill North

Citizens Rushdie, Okri, Ali

Letters, The Guardian, Saturday September 6, 2003

The notion of a monolithic "Britishness" that can be tested is absurd, as it would have to encompass the British Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists of South Africa, East Africa, the Indian subcontinent and China, whose history and culture are as valid as any other facet of British life. Testing immigrants' "Britishness" is a further attempt to sustain a faltering "pigmentocracy" in face of rising numbers of refugees, many escaping the direct consequences of British foreign policy and arms sales.

Dr Stuart Neilson
University College, Cork

Board must fight bullies: In Denial

Letters, The Sunday Times, August 10, 2003, page 18

In denial: Dr Alyn Stacey's rejection of academic bullying is most welcome, but will surprise few academics. University management throughout the country is rife with bullying and it occasionally seems less like a seat of learning than a medaeival patriarchy run by, and for the benefit of, a select few chosen on grounds far distant from academic merit. The scale of bullying is apparent from the immense sums spent on litigation fighting bullied staff, rather than in acknowledging and resolving the problem.

Having recognized the problem, I believe the solution should lie in the effective, transparent and publicly accountable application of existing legal instruments - the Health and Safety Authority code of practice on the prevention of workplace bullying, for instance - through existing bodies such as the departments of Human Resources, President's Offices, the University Visitors and, if all fail, the courts. It is clear enough that these internal bodies are currently unable to meet their legal obligations to protect their staff or to resolve bullying issues without resort to litigation. What may be less clear are the lengths that some in management will go to in order to deny the existence of bullying, thereby engaging in institutional bullying and victimisation of the complainants. This lack of leadership and commitment to fairness among management must be addressed - by replacement if not by training. I wholeheartedly support Dr Alyn Stacey's campaign.

Dr Stuart Neilson
Department of Epidemiology and Public Health
University College Cork


Feedback, New Scientist vol 179 issue 2412 - 13 September 2003, page 92

PROMPTED by reader Stuart Neilson's quest for a Grinding grinding disc (9 August), we asked if other readers could supply examples of what we grandly called homomorphonymy. Geoff Palmer has obliged by telling us that when he rented a Ford Ka recently, the agent kept referring to it as a Ford "K.A." He assumes that this was to pre-empt recursive conversations like:

"I'd like to rent a car please."
"Yes, what sort would you like?"
"I'd like a Ka please."
"Yes, that's what you just said. But what sort would you like...?"

Feedback, New Scientist vol 179 issue 2407 - 09 August 2003, page 80

READER Stuart Neilson recently got into a lexicographical tangle over a "Grinding" disc he bought for his angle grinder. There is, he says, a very good reason that it is a Grinding disc rather than a grinding disc: it is manufactured by an Italian company called Grinding Asciano and is clearly marked: "Cutting wheel for portable machines. Unfit for grinding." Next time, he concludes, he will ask for a Grinding grinding disc.

We wonder if readers can supply any other examples of what we hereby name homomorphonymy.

Inter-church Communion

Letters, The Irish Times, Wednesday July 2, 2003, page 15

Madam, -- May I enlighten Rev David O'Hanlon (July 1) as to the essential nature of the Christian family? Jesus calls; we choose to follow. We cannot choose who else follows, nor should we be resentful of whosoever accepts his open invitation to grace at his table. -- Yours, etc.,

Dr Stuart Neilson
York Hill
Summerhill North

Letters, The Irish Times, Tuesday July 1, 2003, page 15

Madam, -- Imagine a stranger walks into your home one day while the door is open and announces that he is a member of your family. You are shocked.

It turns out that he is not a long-last relative, but someone who is delusional. He has even changed his name to yours.

You feel threatened.

He is perfectly pleasant but absolutely adamant. He insists he is a member of your family.

You grow resentful.

You ask him to leave because you are serving up a meal to your children. But he proceeds to take a seat at the table with them and puts you in the position of either having to upset everyone by making a scene or actually feeding this interloper just to get rid of him.

If, under other circumstances, you had both spontaneously discovered a lot in common and he had waited to be asked, you might indeed have eventually had him to dinner in your home. Now, however, you are angry. How dare he unilaterally assert intimacy with you and your family! How dare he insinuate himself! How dare he manipulate you!

Maybe once you could have been friends. Now that is never likely to happen.

You call the Guards. -- Yours, etc.,

Rev David O'Hanlon, CC,
Co Meath

It's still life

Letters, New Scientist vol 178 issue 2396 - 24 May 2003, page 26

Sylvia Pagán Westphal writes that parthenogenetically cloned human embryos "die after a few days" and therefore "could never become human beings. So destroying these embryos to obtain stem cells would avoid the ethical concerns that have led to restrictions or bans on embryonic stem cell research in many countries" (26 April, p 17).

I for one am unable to distinguish any ethical difference between the destruction of a human life capable of adulthood and one with an accidental or intentional limitation to its lifespan. As for religious or moral opposition to embryonic research, I am sure that the sanctity of human life does not depend on such limitations in potential lifespan.

Stuart Neilson
Cork, Ireland
University College Cork

Justin Barrett's manifesto

Letters, The Irish Times, Tuesday May 20, 2003, page 17

Madam, -- Judging by your account of Justin Barrett's book (The Irish Times, May 17th) Mr Barrett will give himself a great deal of needless heartache in reconstructing the Republic of Ireland as his own personal utopia.

He could simply select from one the many repressive, one-party regimes already in existence. That would also afford him a choice of climate. - Yours, etc.,

Stuart Neilson
York Hill

Magazine Displays

Letters to the editor, The Irish Times, Tuesday July 23, 2002, page 11

Sir, -- Further to Fionnuala O'Connor's comment about the widespread and prominent display of men's magazines in newsagents (July 18th), there is a problem which I think is far more serious. This is the diostribution of magazines that appear to contain pornographic representations of children. These magazines are widely available in grocery stores and newsagents - they occupy an entire shelf at children's eye-level in one grocery store in Cork.

Titles on display include College Girls, Barely Legal and Teenaged Sluts. If these magazines actually contain images of under-age children it is certainly a serious matter, although I presume they do not. An additional issue is that these magazines appear to condone sex with children and (at least superficially) purport to depict under-age people, or adults portraying children for the gratification of adult purchasers. The titles alone are demeaning to girls, irrespective of the contents.

It is not right that magazines that present, promote or condone paedophilia are displayed in grocery stores or newsagents. In fact such titles should not be available at all because they breach the Child Trafficking and Pornography Act 1998, which defines "child pornography" as "pornography involving a person who is or is depicted as being a child [under the age of 17]".

Dr Stuart Neilson
York Hill

Teletubbies panned? Why?!

The Guardian Letters, Tuesday 10 March 1998


The extreme hostility expressed towards the Teletubbies (TV chiefs pan Teletubbies, 10 March) by an assortment of television industry malcontents and "ignorant sluts" reveals more about the stagnation and sterility of children's television in its totality than it does about the series. What it reveals most starkly is how featureless the rest of children's scheduling must be, that all attention falls on a single title.

The mere thought that a spokesperson for Warner Brothers, of all organisations, could describe Teletubbies as "vaguely sinister and lacking in depth" must be one of the defining moments of unintentional comic hypocrisy. The best of commercial children's entertainment in indeed good, but it has yet to claim any worthy educational high ground.

The attention, savage as it has been at times, is a great tribute to Anne Wood, who has created the most original entry to the field in recent years and deserves support for promoting a more balanced children's TV diet.

Dr Stuart Neilson

Naturally deadly

Opinion, New Scientist issue 2033 - 8 June 1996

Stuart Neilson's work on the dangers of natural radiation merits attention (This Week, 4 May, p 4). However, geographically based surveys have their limits. Research is needed on dose rates and subsequent health profiles. Studies up to now have been based on radon concentrations, not the dose actually received. Given the adverse impact on health now ascribed to "natural background radiation", a longitudinal study examining the health of families over generations could yield some interesting findings.

Work on alpha particle irradiation by Wright and colleagues at the Medical Research Council indicates that it may be 3 to 150 times as dangerous as was previously thought. Rather than leading to an excess of a particular cancer, alpha particles might be giving rise to small increases in a variety of adverse effects.

by Jill Sutcliffe, West Sussex
Imperial College Centre for Environmental Technology

Radiant Cornwall

Letters, New Scientist vol 150 issue 2031 - 25 May 96, page Page 58

With reference to the article by Rob Edwards on natural radiation (This Week, 4 May, p 4), I would like to take Stuart Neilson to task for saying that Cornwall's high life expectancy may be a result of other factors, such as greater affluence.

Neilson has got it seriously wrong. Cornwall must be one of the poorest counties in England in terms of income per capita. However, we do have some of the most beautiful scenery and pleasantest people in the country; I think it more likely that lack of stress rather than affluence contributes to our happy longevity.

Sabina Paterson
Falmouth, Cornwall

Natural radiation `may kill thousands'

This Week, New Scientist vol 150 issue 2028 - 04 May 96, page Page 4

UP TO 19 000 people in England and Wales may die each year because they are exposed to natural gamma radiation, says a medical statistician from London. His research suggests that low-level radiation from natural and artificial sources may be more dangerous than previously thought.

Stuart Neilson of Brunel University in London estimates that 3.4 per cent of the 560 000 deaths in England and Wales each year could be the result of the gamma rays from traces of uranium in the ground. Everyone is exposed to this radiation. He says that high doses are statistically associated with deaths from anaemia, heart disease, respiratory infections, diseases of the nervous system and problems at birth.

Neilson, director of medical information systems at the Centre for the Study of Health at Brunel, suggests that people who happen to live in areas where levels of natural gamma radiation are high may run a greater risk of premature death than those who live in less irradiated areas. This implies, for example, that people in Cornwall, South Yorkshire, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear, West Glamorgan and Derbyshire are more likely to be killed by gamma rays than people elsewhere in England and Wales (see Table).

Natural gamma radiation levels in England

He accepts that there is little that people living in the worst affected areas can do to reduce the risk, although they can minimise their exposure to additional radiation. "Medical X-rays, particularly dental X-rays, may be more harmful than currently recognised," he says. "My research will not be popular with the regulatory authorities because it suggests that there is a much larger public health problem from low-level radiation that is generally accepted."

Neilson's work is strongly criticised by the National Radiological Protection Board, which advises the British government on the hazards of radiation. Chris Sharp, head of the medical department at the NRPB, accuses Neilson of using a statistical technique which is not powerful enough to prove a causal link. "These kind of geographical studies are notorious for throwing up spurious relationships," he says. "This does not add to our knowledge."

Neilson's figures show that Cornwall is the county with the highest level of gamma exposure, which comes from specks of uranium in granite formations. Yet people living in Cornwall have a life expectancy of 76.6 years, slightly above the English and Welsh average of 76 years. Sharp says that this is an example of the inconsistencies in Neilson's analysis. Neilson, however, says that Cornwall's high life expectancy may be a result of other factors, such as greater affluence. All the other counties with high gamma doses have life expectancies below the average.

Sharp agrees, however, that natural radiation could be responsible for causing an unspecified number of deaths from cancer. He says that the NRPB assumes that "some" of the 160 000 cancer deaths a year in Britain are caused by natural radioactivity. David Sumner, an independent radiation specialist from the University of Glasgow, estimates that gamma radiation from the ground may cause 1000 cancer deaths a year. A further 4000 deaths a year could be due to natural radiation such as radon gas and cosmic rays from outer space. But both Sharp and Sumner argue that the number of cancer deaths caused by natural radiation is probably too small to allow a statistically significant link to be made.

Neilson found an association between deaths from all forms of cancer and exposure to natural gamma radiation, but concedes that it is not statistically significant. Nevertheless, he insists that the links he highlights between gamma irradiation and other fatal diseases are statistically strong. It is possible that gamma radiation causes changes in DNA which could increase the susceptibility of a small proportion of the population to some diseases, he says.

Neilson says that no studies comparing gamma radiation with death rates in Britain have been published before. Studies suggesting links between exposure to natural radiation in sand and premature deaths in India and Brazil have been dismissed by Western experts because of doubts about the validity of their population statistics. "My analysis suggests that terrestrial gamma radiation at low doses has a very significant impact on human mortality," he says.

The basis of Neilson's research, which arose out of a study of possible links between radiation and motor neuron disease, is published in the latest issue of the Journal of Neurology. His paper concludes that radon gas is related to up to 50 of the 1200 deaths a year from motor neuron disease. It is highly unlikely that radiation directly causes the disease, he says, but it could be "an accelerating factor".

Rob Edwards

No threshold

New Scientist, letters issue 2011 - 06 January 1996

The letter from M. Tubiana et al (2 December 1995) epitomises the attitude of the nuclear establishment in France which, alone among members of the European Community, has continued to reject the nonthreshold model of radiation risk put forward by all the international regulatory authorities including the International Commission on Radiological Protection, and in Britain by the National Radiological Protection Board. Tubiana's letter makes the extraordinary claim that: "No survey, including those on atomic bomb survivors, detects any effect for doses of less than 200 millisieverts in acute irradiation." I'm afraid these French scientists are seriously misinformed.

In 1987 E. Radford published data that show exactly such an effect ("Recent evidence of radiation-induced cancer in the Japanese atomic bomb survivors", Radiation and Health, edited by myself and Richard Southwood, John Wiley & Sons). It is quite clear from Radford's figures that effects, including deaths from leukeamia and other cancers, have taken place among people exposed to less than 200 mSv, and that there is no threshold. In fact, as many as 77 per cent of deaths from cancers other than leukaemia occurred among people exposed to 160 mSv or less.

It is odd that French scientists do not refer to these data, as they were published eight years ago. It is also odd that the French Academy of Science continues to argue in favour of a threshold model for radiation risk. On the other hand, the French government insists that there is no risk whatsoever from its programme of underground nuclear tests in the Pacific, and for this claim to have any credibility you have to believe that there is a threshold below which radiation is harmless. While in-vitro laboratory studies of human and animal cells do appear to support a linear or less than linear response to radiation dose, the wide acceptance of a threshold dose below which radiation exposure has no more long-term effects than "a mild dose of flu" (Comment, 2 December 1995) has serious consequences for radiation protection. In any one individual, DNA repair may well function to produce a linear or threshold response. But if, as seems likely, the gradient of the response curve (or the threshold level) differs between individuals then the acceptance of a threshold effect becomes alarmingly nonsensical.

The current understanding of the pathogenic mechanisms in many diseases, including cancers, is that DNA repair mechanisms in some individuals are deficient. The adverse response to radiation stress in these individuals will occur at a lower threshold or rise more steeply with dose than in the population at large. It is at these highly susceptible individuals that radiation protection measures should be aimed.

Robin Russell Jones and Stuart Neilson

Affluence to blame

Letters, New Scientist vol 140 issue 1896 - 23 October 93, page 48

Gail Vines reports an interesting hypothesis (This Week, 25 September) relating increased breast cancer mortality to a supposed increase in exposure to 'oestrogen-like' pesticides in the environment. While laboratory studies may have established a possible biochemical link between oestrogen and uncontrolled cell division, there is little direct epidemiological evidence of a link between pesticide exposure and breast cancer. Indeed crude mortality is rising in most developed nations at a broadly similar rate, despite tremendous differences in agricultural practices and urbanisation.

It is interesting to note that US breast cancer mortality has actually been falling at 1 per cent per year among women under 55, and that the overall increase is entirely attributable to increasing mortality among older women. Therefore, the pattern of mortality could also be explained by successful therapy and increasing survival rates as by any putative pesticide exposure.

It is a common misconception to blame increasing cancer mortality upon a worsening environment. The successful eradication of many infectious diseases and continuing reductions in mortality from circulatory disorders have shifted the balance from preventable to unpreventable death. Every time a 'major killer' is conquered, a previously less significant condition will take its place at the top of the list.

Competitive modelling of the reduction in preventable mortality demonstrates a clear link with factors of affluence, social class and general health, which are all known and replicable epidemiological correlates of elevated breast cancer mortality. It also demonstrates that just under 5 per cent of American women would die from breast cancer in the absence of other causes of death, and that this proportion is stable.

Even in the UK where crude rates of breast cancer mortality are much greater (53 deaths per 100 000 women as opposed to 30 in the US) this proportion is still just under 7 per cent. It is a natural consequence of rising life expectancy that more of these women will die later from breast cancer rather than earlier from unrelated conditions.

Stuart Neilson
Brunel University

Family mystery?

Letters, New Scientist vol 131 issue 1785 - 07 September 91, page 65

Kevin Davies is right to stress the significance of molecular genetic research in understanding MND ('The mystery of motor neuron disease', 17 August). However, the fact remains that this needs to be supported by more sophisticated epidemiological studies. The small proportion (around 10 per cent) of cases assumed to be familial may in fact be far higher. Some studies have indicated that the familial rate is as high as 20 per cent. This is due to a number of factors, including the probable underestimation of the disease in long deceased family members.

More importantly, recent work on mortality statistics by Riggs in the US and our current work in Britain suggests that environmental factors may play a far smaller part in the aetiology of the condition than has been previously thought. Age-adjusted rates for MND have been relatively stable for more than 30 years. Davies fails to mention that the many attempts to replicate studies of environmental toxins have proved either inconclusive or negative. It seems likely from our investigations that a genetic or pre-disposing factor restricts MND to a small sub-population, which may be related to a larger sub-population of unaffected carriers. However, without an improvement in national and international data on the mortality, prevalence and incidence of the condition, laboratory based studies may do little to solve the 'mystery'.

Stuart Neilson
The National Register of People with MND,
Brunel University,