The dark side of the nuclear family

Children suffer chronic illness because grandfathers were exposed to radiation

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"We're all signed up and ready to go/ To offer up our testicles for UNO." This ditty, attributed to American journalists at the nuclear weapons tests in the 1950s, would go on to haunt the more than 20,000 British servicemen who were forced to take part in the UK tests in Australia and Christmas Island in the 1950s and 1960s.

"We were told at the time that after-effects in future generations were unknown, but that there could be problems and defects of birth in our grandchildren," remembers one serviceman who attended the tests on the small Pacific island. Another remembers that "we were told not to start a family for at least a year after leaving".

Of the 20,000 servicemen, most were on their national service and in their early twenties. The group, which also included 238 New Zealanders and 62 Fijians, was responsible for a wide range of duties, from the highly technical preparations for the detonations to catering and clerical jobs. Whatever their role, the servicemen were all required to witness the detonations as part of their "indoctrination" for the possibility of nuclear war.

They were required to line up on the beach, with their backs to the detonations and their hands over their eyes for the first minute or so. Then they were told to turn around and look at the awesome sight of the mushroom cloud pluming thousands of feet into the air. Few of the men wore more than shorts and sandals during their time at the tests; only those who were thought to be at risk from radiation injury were issued with protective clothing and radiation dose badges. The UK government was sure that the troops, most of whom were standing within 20 kilometres of the detonations and some of whom were present for 25 nuclear bomb blasts in as many weeks on Christmas Island, were not irradiated.

The nuclear veterans who feel that their illnesses were caused by the radiation they encountered when they were young men are still routinely issued a Ministry of Defence document which claims that: "The background [radiation] dose received by civilians and members of HM Forces serving at or off Christmas Island in the years 1956 to 1964 was only about 35 per cent of that which they would have received on average had they remained, for that period of their lives, in the United Kingdom."

I have studied and talked with 2,500 veterans of these tests. They don't accept this patently ridiculous statement. About one in seven of the men in the sample of 1,014 who responded to a questionnaire I circulated in late 1997 did not father any children after they returned from the weapons tests. Those who did are convinced that the high incidence of birth defects that they have noticed, and I have documented, in their children - and their grandchildren - was caused by their exposure to radiation as young servicemen. Among the nearly 5,000 children and grandchildren on whom I have information from this group of veterans, there are 26 cases of spina bifida alone - more than five times the usual rate for the UK.

Radiation-induced infertility and impaired fertility have been identified for well over 50 years in animals. Following the Chernobyl disaster, a range of fertility and sexual function problems in 12 men with chronic radiation dermatitis was reported.

Low-level but chronic exposure to radiation such as the nuclear veterans experienced at Monte Bello or Maralinga or Christmas Island 40 years ago was probably sufficient to cause changes to their sperm which resulted in infertility for some and birth defects in the offspring of others. Patricia Ash, of the Medical Research Council Radiobiology Unit, noted: "It should be remembered that although human fertility may be retained after substantial doses of radiation, there is always the risk of radiation-induced inheritable damage which may persist for many generations."

American researchers have reported high levels of spina bifida in children conceived in areas of known radiation pollution around US weapons plants; in the UK, very similar congenital and reproductive problems were also reported in a recent study of children of medical radiographers.

Nearly half the health problems among the offspring of the nuclear weapons tests veterans I have studied consist of the same dermatological, musculoskeletal and gastrointestinal conditions which affect many of the men.

Among the 2,261 children of 1,041 veterans, there were more than 200 skeletal abnormalities reported, including more than 30 cases of short stature and 18 spinal problems, mostly curvature and scoliosis. More than 100 skin conditions were reported, mostly eczema and dermatitis, in many cases described as congenital. More than 50 of the children were already suffering from arthritis and similar conditions, although they are only now entering their thirties. Hip deformities were reported for 19 children; kneecap deformities for 14 children. The observed rate of congenital dislocation of the hip in Benton and Franklin counties (around the Hanford nuclear site in the USA) was 1.2 per 1,000 live births compared with 3.1 per 1,000 live births in the three-state Birth Defects Monitoring Programme.

More than a hundred of the veterans' children reported reproductive problems; 24 women reported problems with their ovaries. This pattern was repeated in the grandchildren, though there seems to be some easing off of the effect.

The same pattern is evident in the health of the 238 New Zealand and 62 Fijian veterans whose data I have analysed, and of their children and grandchildren. The Fijian veterans have recently announced their intention to sue the UK government through the European Court of Human Rights, following a still unresolved case brought by two of the UK veterans in my study. Meanwhile, the UK Ministry of Defence has agreed to look into the 45 cases of multiple myeloma reported among the veterans. Documents now emerging from the Public Records Office under the 30-year rule make it clear that UK scientists, military officers and politicians of the 1950s and 1960s were aware that, as one document dated 1947 from the Medical Research Council puts it, "even the smallest doses of radiation produce a genetic effect, there being no threshold dose below which no genetic effect is induced".

On 13 January 1958 Dr Linus Pauling handed the secretary of the United Nations a petition signed by 9,235 scientists of all nations warning that continued nuclear testing would result in an increasing number of deformed children throughout the world. "We must not be responsible for the future birth of thousands of children with the most serious mental and physical defects, simply because we did not pay enough attention to that danger," said the Nobel prize winner Albert Schweitzer.

His warning was not heeded. Kathy Platoni, a clinical psychologist specialising in pain management and a major in the US army reserve, testified before President Clinton's Committee on Human Radiation Experiments in November 1994. She told the committee about her medical history. "I have undergone 22 surgical procedures, including the loss of 32 teeth simultaneously at the age of 23. I have had my skull reconstructed from anterior and posterior pelvic bone four times due to bone deterioration diseases, in addition to implantation of a surgical steel Ramus frame in my mandible and transplantation of full thickness abdominal tissue grafts to rebuild the roof of my mouth. I have had my skull and throat muscles realigned and wired together from the orbits of my eyes, out to my ears, and down to my throat, so tightly that a straw would not fit in my mouth.

"I was diagnosed with polycystic ovarian disease in 1983 and after removal of a third ovary and a dermoid cyst, the latter of which consisted of hair, tooth and bone, I was diagnosed with trophoprivic hypothyroidism in 1984, after over 100 blood tests performed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. I suffer from advanced osteoporosis, so that my bones have disintegrated to the degree that they are indistinguishable from those of an 85-year-old woman. I suffer from osteoarthritis in almost every joint in my body."

Platoni told the committee that there was no family history of any of these conditions. "This should not be a surprise, as the contamination of one's genetic composition can readily result in such congenital defects and malformations if toxic exposure has occurred in one or both parents."

She then outlined her father's service history as a member of the US navy. "He often told the tale of his ship being in the waters off the coasts of both Nagasaki and Hiroshima during the atomic bombings of August 1945."

Yet despite more than a decade of searching, Kathy Platoni has not traced his service record for the period between 2 August and 5 September 1945. Her researches indicate that "the length of time my father spent aboard the USS Adair can be explained by the fact that this vessel, as well as the Appalachian (AGCI), broke convoy and received a special star award, quite possibly for participation in the landing of occupational troops. Many of the casuals unlisted aboard the USS Adair were discharged at Eniwetok, the period of time unaccounted for between 2 August 1945 and 5 September 1945, and the very period in question. This information may provide the rationale for my father's radiation exposure."

Eugene J Platoni died in 1983 at the age of 58 after five months of illness. "During the course of his multiple illnesses, his blood type changed three times. He underwent over 65 blood transfusions, daily plasmapheresis, haemodialysis, bone marrow biopsies, six full blood exchanges, a splenectomy, a cervical node biopsy, tracheostomy, endotracheal intubation and ventilation, thoracocentesis and IV chemotherapy." His autopsy listed 18 separate diagnoses as the cause of death, including angioimmunoblastic lymphoma.

Platoni was cut off four minutes into her allotted 12 minutes of testimony to the Committee on Human Radiation Experiments. She had raised her voice but it seemed no one wanted to hear it.

The writer is Cookson Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Medical Education, Dundee University

This article appears in the 15 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, A slight and delicate minister?