Deaths feared linked a bomb tests
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Deaths, illnesses feared linked to A-bomb tests
By COLIN JAMES
A PERTH family is undergoing genetic testing to determine whether a series of premature deaths is linked to British nuclear tests 50 years ago.
Already a mutated gene has been discovered in the daughter of a former RAAF serviceman who served at the Monte Bello Islands, Maralinga and Woomera before dying of cancer at 44.
The spate of deaths and serious illnesses over three decades has prompted the family of Robert Williamson to call for a national investigation into whether the British nuclear tests had caused birth defects within the families of 17,000 Australian men who participated.
Mr Williamson's daughter, Susan Powell, 38, had both her breasts removed when she was 28, after developing cancer. Her daughter Ashlee, 16, has a rare chromosomal condition which affects her growth and ovary development.
Mrs Powell's brother Kenneth, 46, required a hip replacement at the age of 30. Another brother died at the age of eight, of a brain tumour. Two other brothers died, one aged 22 after being sick his entire life and the other at 36 of liver cancer. Kenneth's son Scott, 13, was diagnosed last year with Hodgkin's lymphoma. Another of Robert Williamson's grandsons had a malignant melanoma removed in 1999 and a third, aged 16, was diagnosed with brain tumours last October. A granddaughter died as a baby, of a brain tumour.
The family is convinced its problems have been caused by Robert Williamson's exposure to radiation during the first British nuclear test at the Monte Bello Islands, 90km off WA's northwest coast, in October 1952.
Kenneth, Mr Williamson's only surviving son, has received his father's Defence Department service history through the Department of Veterans Affairs. He says it contains false information about his father's rank, position and location.
"We've got to the stage now where we have started to ask questions about what has happened to our family and so far we've been getting very few straight answers," he said.
The family's fears gained momentum in March when Mrs Powell underwent tests which revealed she had a mutated gene triggered by radiation.
Mrs Powell said the family was not looking for public sympathy.
"We just want to know why this is happening and to make sure our children and their children are going to be safe," she said. "We also want to know how many other families of veterans like us are out there."
Leading geneticist Professor Grant Sutherland said the nuclear tests could not be blamed for birth defects and serious medical conditions within the families of veterans.
Professor Sutherland – who is advising the Federal Government on a study into the deaths of an estimated 10,000 veterans – said there was no medical research to support widespread claims the nuclear tests had caused genetic defects or multiple cancers. He believes individual members of the Williamson family are carrying a mutant gene inherited from Mr Williamson's parents or created during his conception.
"I would be 99.9 per cent sure the mutated gene wasn't caused by exposure to radiation," he said.
His opinion has been disputed by a Perth researcher who has spent several years investigating the long-term health effects of the British nuclear tests.
Ann Munslow-Davies said no research had been done on birth defects reported by veterans' families in Australia, Britain and New Zealand "and that's exactly the point".
"We simply don't know what has caused this and that's why proper research is needed, to find out," she said.