This review examines the epidemiologic and experimental studies into the possible role ionizing radiation might play in Down Syndrome (trisomy 21). It is prompted by a report of a temporal cluster of cases of this chromosomal disorder observed in West Berlin exactly 9 mo after the radioactive cloud from Chernobyl passed. In approximately 90% of cases, Down Syndrome is due to the nondisjunction of chromosome 21, most often in the oocyte, which may be exposed to ionizing radiation during two separate periods: before the completion of the first meiosis or around the time of ovulation. Most epidemiologic studies into trisomies and exposure to ionizing radiation examine only the first period; the Chernobyl cluster is related to the second. Analysis of these epidemiologic results indicates that the possibility that ionizing radiation might be a risk factor in Down Syndrome cannot be excluded. The experimental results, although sometimes contradictory, demonstrate that irradiation may induce nondisjunction in oogenesis and spermatogenesis; they cannot, however, be easily extrapolated to humans. The weaknesses of epidemiologic studies into the risk factors for Down Syndrome at birth (especially the failure to take into account the trisomy cases leading to spontaneous abortion) are discussed. We envisage the utility and feasibility of new studies, in particular among women exposed to prolonged or repeated artificially-produced ionizing radiation.
(C)1997Health Physics Society