Don's diary

November 5, 1999


With a week to go before publication, my colleagues and I travel to the west coast of England to present our research findings to the workforce and union representatives at the nuclear installation at Sellafield.

In an investigation of the children of radiation workers at Sellafield born between 1950 and 1989, we found a statistical association between the risk of stillbirth and father's preconception radiation exposure.

Our objective is to emphasise that even were the association found to be causal, because the stillbirth rate and the occupational radiation doses are now low there is little cause for concern for current employees.


The Lancet faxes through the press release about our study. Our main concern is to make sure it does not overdramatise our findings. We change the title and replace "speculation" with "caution".


I telephone the university press office to check all is well and am dismayed to discover that the press officer with whom I've spent several hours discussing the project has imbibed a substantial quantity of salmonella over the weekend.


The Lancet issues the press release at noon and by 12.15 the BBC is on the telephone asking for more details.

Local BBC news and Border TV both record interviews during the afternoon for broadcast after the embargo at 1am on Friday. I emphasise that a statistical association does not necessarily mean cause and effect - which is a complicated concept to get over.


By the time I arrive in my office there is a fax of the headlines from the Whitehaven News, the local weekly paper in the Sellafield area: "Radiation Workers' Stillborn Fears Allayed". It has broken The Lancet's embargo and has been given a copy of the workforce-briefing document. At least the coverage is reassuring for the workforce.

I am contacted by eight different BBC programmes, which eventually manage to coordinate a series of interviews for Friday morning.


My support team (my 11-year-old son Tim) and I get up at 5am so that we are thoroughly awake by the time the taxi arrives at 6.15am to take us to the Good Morning TV studio. Sound problems in the studio are offputting, but the interview is short and we arrive back home just as the BBC van pulls up. I do two radio and two TV interviews before getting my younger children ready and off to school at 8.30am.

After a day and a half of interviews, intense media interest has been largely deflated by a cautious account of our research. We have met our objective.

At home at 7pm I still have one decision to make. With relief I realise this is one I can delegate. I turn to my husband: "What would you prefer - Chinese or Italian?" We decide on fish and chips.

Louise Parker is senior lecturer in epidemiology, Newcastle University.

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