DNA damage to nuclear test vets prompts call for study of children

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Dr Al RowlandThe Government is considering whether to fund studies into the health of nuclear test veterans’ children, after a Massey study confirmed that the veterans had suffered genetic damage as a result of radiation.

The New Zealand Nuclear Test Veterans’ Association commissioned Dr Al Rowland of the Institute of Molecular BioSciences and his team to look at the cells of 50 veterans for damage. Dr Rowland says the findings are unequivocal: in a matched control group of men of the same age, his team found an expected frequency of 10 chromosome translocations per 1000 cells, but in the veterans’ group, the average number of translocations was considerably higher at 29 chromosome translocations per 1000 cells.

Workers who were close the Chernobyl nuclear accident or involved in the clean up after the accident had about 20 translocations.

The lawyer acting for the veterans is to travel to London, where a class action is being taken against the British Government on behalf of the British, Fijian and New Zealand Veterans.

Association chairman Roy Sefton says more than 400 of the 551 sailors who took part in Operation Grapple have died. He was 17 when he was sent to the operation, a series of detonations totalling nine-megatons.

“NZNTVA is now looking for financial support from Government, or elsewhere, to have a study done on a group of the veterans’ children to identify any genetic damage that may have resulted from their fathers’ exposure to service-related radiation.”

It was the incoming Labour Government of 1999 that granted the veterans $100,000 for the study, Mr Sefton says, with additional support of more than $100,000 from agencies including The Lion Foundation, the New Zealand and Auckland cancer societies, and the Royal Society which donated funding and laboratory equipment.

The seamen who took part in Operation Grapple were on the frigates HMNZS Pukaki and HMNZS Rotoiti, watching the tests from distances of between 52km and 278km.

The University team that produced the study included Mohammed Abdul Wahab and Elizabeth Nickless of the Institute of Molecular BioSciences, and Associate Professor John Podd of the University’s School of Psychology, as well as Claude Parmentier and Radhia M’Kacher of the Institut Gustave-Roussy in France.

The five-year project started with development of an extremely stringent procedure, with input from St Andrew’s University in Scotland, which devised the set of assays (tests). Analysis was made of 50 veterans and a control group for possible confounding factors, together with analysis of the literature in related studies.

The final report, released on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the first nuclear test on Malden Island on 15 May, 1957, states that the cause of the elevated translocation frequencies observed in veterans is most likely attributable to radiation exposure. Dr Rowland says that while he realises the subject is political, his interest is in the science.

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