One scientist's story: Leukemia and the nuclear industry in France

It couldn't happen here... could it?

by Jean-Francois Viel


have been struggling for ten years to investigate leukemia among young people in the vicinity of the French nuclear waste reprocessing plant, at La Hague. I began trying to establish a cancer register, which was lacking at that time. My research was peaceful and confident up to November 1995, when I published a spatial analysis highlighting a peak of leukemia incidence in the electoral ward (named "Beaumont-La Hague") containing the nuclear plant. (Viel JF, Pobel D, Carre A., "Incidence of leukemia in young people around La Hague nuclear waste reprocessing plant: a sensitivity analysis." (Statistics in Medicine 1995;14:2459-72.)

Although I was cautious, avoiding any causal link between the plant and the disease peak, the attacks on me began. This turned into a harsh controversy in January 1997 with the results of a case-control study I had conducted in this area (Pobel D, Viel JF. "Case-control study of leukemia among young people near La Hague nuclear reprocessing plant: the environmental hypothesis revisited." (British Medical Journal 1997; 314:101-6.) I found that the more often children played on the beach or consumed local fish or shellfish, the more likely they were to develop leukemia. Relying on several arguments (dose-response effect, the strength of the associations, lack of temporal ambiguity, consistency with Scottish results), I concluded that there was "convincing evidence" for a causal relationship.

Soon after, I was fiercely condemned for my findings. Local politicians held me personally responsible for alleged damage to the local economy, due (according to them) to flawed results brought to the attention of the public through an unknown medical journal (i.e., the British Medical Journal).

Late January, I was informed by newspapers and the National Medical Council that the president of the Council of the departement de la Manche -- the administrative area containing the nuclear plant -- was threatening a lawsuit against me. From January to July 1997, I was the subject of attacks and libels. This did not seem to rouse other French epidemiologists to action. My support came from the British Medical Journal, some newspapers like Le Monde and the French ministry of the environment.

My worst attackers consisted of local representatives, the French medical research institute, one official institution named Office for Protection Against Ionizing Radiation, and Cogema -- a state-owned company operating the La Hague nuclear plant.

In July, the integrity and relevance of my research work was recognized. However, I was pressured to reveal the identity of study participants, and provide personal data acquired in my survey to other groups. I have refused both, since in the application file to the "French national committee of data processing and freedom," and in the documents to the participants, I had committed not to do so. More precisely, I had received an official approval from this committee, provided (1) any link with any name would be destroyed after the usual data check; (2) data access would be restricted to the medical staff of my team under my personal responsibility; (3) any data transmission to anyone (individual or institution) would be strictly forbidden; (4) only anonymous and aggregated data would be published; (5) all these statements would be reported upon the informed consent signed by the parents. I have respected these rules. Scientifically speaking, it can appear shocking, but it was a matter of ethics and deontology for me. I was committed to respect these rules, so I held on, keeping my personal responsibility towards the parents.

In July 1997, I was under the threat of two lawsuits. One was due to the mayor of Beaumont-La Hague -- the village where the plant is located -- threatening to sue me to court for the offense of "disinformation." I received this information through an American journalist from the New York Times.

Things are getting slowly better. Threats never turned into genuine lawsuits but my scientific credibility is still called into question. In the meantime, I have received modest support from my university, and from the French ministry of education, since I am allowed to get in touch with a lawyer if I am sued.

I have published a book for lay people in France, entitled Public Health Atomized (ISBN 2-7071-2827-9). I describe the evidence coming from the British studies, the details of my case-control study, the pros and cons of any epidemiological study, the causal inference process in epidemiology, societal reactions (slanders, diabolism...), deficiencies of the surveillance system in France, tough French regulations on the use of nominal and census data, and the convergence of interests between industrialists, politicians, and some scientists.

I know better than most how powerful the nuclear lobby is. I have experienced attacks and intimidations at the expense of my professional and family life. As a consequence, I am concerned about the role of environmental epidemiologists. On the razor's edge between industry and community activists, they are operating in a rapidly evolving society. They should, in my opinion, demonstrate a humility about the scientific research process and an unrelenting commitment to playing a supportive role in larger efforts to improve public health. Citizenship and environmental equity are of primary concern. However, they should not be left carrying this heavy burden alone. Public support is warranted by epidemiology's vital role in shaping public health policy and practice. It is time to enter a new societal contract between citizens, politicians, and scientists, one which is based on principles of innovative science and social justice.

  Jean-Francois Viel Professor of Biostatistics and Epidemiology University of Besancon, France. Reprinted from THE NETWORKER The Newsletter of the Science and Environmental Health Network, October 1998 Vol. 3, #3. To subscribe, send a message to with the following line: subscribe sehn <your name>. You may contact the editor at or (701) 763-6286.