A University of Adelaide study has found that cancer rates among Australian men involved in the 1950s British nuclear tests are 23% higher than the general population, but has shown no link between the increased cancer rates and exposure to radiation.
However, the study unearthed a probable asbestos-related cancer excess in navy personnel.
The study - Mortality and Cancer Incidence in Australian Participants in the British Nuclear Tests in Australia - was undertaken by the University of Adelaide in association with a panel of specialists in radiation physics. It took more than three years to complete and was released last week by the Federal Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Bruce Billson. The study investigated the health effects on 11,000 men who took part in the British nuclear tests in Australia from 1952 to 1963.
Dr Richie Gun, from the Discipline of Public Health at the University of Adelaide, said that a link between the increases in cancer rates and exposure to radiation could not be established.
“However, there were 26 cases of mesothelioma, a cancer strongly associated with asbestos. Of these, 16 occurred in Royal Australian Navy (RAN) personnel, nearly three times the number expected. Higher than average rates of lung cancer - another asbestos-related cancer - was also greatest in RAN personnel. This strongly suggests a significant problem of asbestos exposure in RAN vessels, although the exposure did not necessarily occur during the nuclear tests.
“Overall, the cancer excess is very similar to the excess found in a similar study of Korean War veterans, who served in the armed forces at about the same period as the nuclear test participants, but where radiation was not an issue. This tends to confirm the study finding that the excess of cancers is unrelated to radiation exposure at the test sites.”
“This is not surprising in view of the radiation exposures, which were less than is generally realised. Nearly 80% of participants received less than the annual background exposure experienced in the general population, and less than 5% received more than the annual occupational exposure limit. In particular, those who watched the explosions from viewing areas were too far away to receive any significant dose,” Dr Gun said.
While the overall death rate of study participants was similar to that of the general population, death rates from cancer were significantly raised.