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Worried veterans question beryllium admission -

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Worried veterans question beryllium admission

Reporter: Matt Peacock

KERRY O'BRIEN: The Australian Navy has admitted that thousands of its former servicemen may have
been exposed to potentially lethal dust from the metal beryllium, which was used with pneumatic
guns to clear paint and rust off its ships until the mid 1980s.

Beryllium dust is extremely toxic, and exposure can result in rashes, shortness of breath, even
death. The dangers of inhaling beryllium dust have been well known for more than half a century.

Now, a revealing file note on a Naval ex-serviceman's medical record has triggered a wave of
inquiries by worried veterans and the promise of a full inquiry by the Navy.

Matt Peacock reports.

MATT PEACOCK: Young naval recruits are offered a life of excitement and satisfaction serving their
country. But for some young men who joined up years ago, it might now mean sickness and uncertainty
- sickness caused by a dust they breathed on board that could end up killing them.

KEVIN FRENCH (NAVY VETERAN): Sometimes I get wheezy and just can't breathe, and I use the nebuliser
with ventolin, and the ventolin, it does fix the problem. But until I've had the tests done, I
won't really know.

CHRIS BRADSHAW (NAVY VETERAN): It's concerning, very concerning, in fact. I've got four kids; I
want to grow old. I'm only 46. I don't know if I've got this beryllium poisoning or not. I want to
find out.

MATT PEACOCK: It was American workers on the world's first atomic bomb who became the first
industrial victims of beryllium, a rare but especially light, stable and strong metal whose toxic
dust can kill those who breathe it.

DR PETER LURIE (HEALTH RESEARCH GROUP): Beryllium is one of the most remarkable metals that we know
about because in extremely small quantities it is capable of causing an extremely disabling kind of
lung disease, one that might leave you tethered to an oxygen tank for the rest of your life and, in
a large fraction of people, will lead ultimately to death.

MATT PEACOCK: On board the Royal Australian Navy, beryllium was in the needles on these so-called
jason pistols that were used to chip back paint.

GREG SEMPLE (NAVY VETERAN): You put them on the deck, much like here, and you'd use them to get
into the hard-to-get-at places or a strip along the deck itself.

MATT PEACOCK: Beryllium was employed where there was a fire risk and normal metal needles might
cause a spark.

BOB CURRIN (NAVY VETERAN): We didn't know anything about the beryllium. We weren't told about the
beryllium. All we were told was that there was a special needle. That needle was to be used in
highly inflammable areas.

MATT PEACOCK: Bob Currin used to be the engineers' storeman on the HMAS Supply. He's now the
president of the Naval Tankermens' Association and, like his fellow committee members, he's

BOB CURRIN: They were used very widely below decks, but they were also used very widely above decks
by the seamen who done the ship's side and the superstructure of the ships.

KEVIN FRENCH: It was mainly for descaling on the upper decks to get rid of rust and things like
that. I can remember sometimes you'd be covered in absolute dust.

CHRIS BRADSHAW: I didn't know what was in the needles. We were just given the guns and told to go
down there and descale or chip the paint back, and that's what we did.

MATT PEACOCK: It's only in the last two months that news of the beryllium needles has emerged,
apparently by mistake. On former serviceman Peter Robertson's medical records was the notation by
his medical officer in 1980 and the stamp "exposed to beryllium dust through inadvertent use of
beryllium copper jason pistol needles on HMAS Supply, July to September 1980". The alarm bells
began to ring.

BOB CURRIN: When Peter went to see this doctor and that had on it "exposed to beryllium", why
wasn't he told then? Peter had no knowledge of this, and we're not talking last year, we're talking
15 years ago, maybe even more than that, and this has been kept quiet for all that time.

CHRIS BRADSHAW: Peter was on board the ship when I was on board the ship back in 1980. If they'd
known about beryllium in 1980, why the heck didn't they do the testing? I didn't pay off until
1983. Why didn't they test us then, the whole ship?

MATT PEACOCK: Beryllium's dangers have been known for decades. It was beryllium that prompted the
first US air quality standard for workers back in 1949 - a standard that the Health Research
Group's Dr Peter Lurie in Washington has fought to toughen.

DR PETER LURIE: As long ago as 1977, the United States, which has not been quick at all to act on
this problem, proposed doing something about beryllium, significantly reducing the amount of
beryllium to which workers could be exposed.

MATT PEACOCK: Dr Lurie says it's hard to imagine that the Navy was still using beryllium without
any precautions into the 1980s.

DR PETER LURIE: These dangers have been documented in study after study after study. They've
appeared in American Government documents and in the documents of other governments, and for some
government to sit around and fail to protect workers, particularly those dedicated to protecting
the security of their own country, is really unacceptable.

BOB CURRIN: They knew that it was a dangerous heavy metal, and then they turn around and issue
these needles that are a beryllium base. You know, surely a light must have went off somewhere.
What we need to know is: who turned the light off? And we need those people to answer why.

MATT PEACOCK: No-one from the Navy was prepared to speak to the 7.30 Report today, but a statement
released last week acknowledges that jason pistol needles containing beryllium were used in the
past. It says it's currently investigating the extent of their use, in which ships and when, but
the Navy warns that its records may not be comprehensive or consistent, and it says it's currently
unaware of any proven cases of occupationally caused beryllium disease.

The Navy says it's treating the beryllium concerns seriously, but its statement raises more
questions than it answers. Just when, for example, did it discover the hazards of beryllium? And
when did it stop using the beryllium needles? And just how many people have a stamp on their
medical file saying "inadvertently exposed to beryllium", and why weren't they told?

The Navy's admission that it used beryllium has prompted near panic amongst ex-servicemen, already
only too well aware of the asbestos tragedy.

BOB CURRIN: In the first six hours of this story being released, we had emails and telephone calls
from over 24 members that have diagnosed, confirmed lung scarring, unexplained lung scarring. I'm
not saying that all of those are from beryllium...

MATT PEACOCK: But it could be?

BOB CURRIN: It could be. We need to know.

GREG SEMPLE: Well, I've been worried for ages about my health. It's just been declining over the
last probably 10 years, my respiratory problems and that.

MATT PEACOCK: You find it hard to breathe, do you?

GREG SEMPLE: Yes, yes, more so lately.

MATT PEACOCK: A urine test can tell whether there's still beryllium in the bloodstream.

But for Greg Semple, the only way to be really sure if he's been affected is to have a battery of
expensive tests which determine if his lungs have been damaged, and he's just one of many
ex-servicemen currently paying for that process.

GREG SEMPLE: When you're 20 years of age and you're six-foot and bulletproof, nothing's going to
hurt you until your later life. I am surprised that this has come up.

CHRIS BRADSHAW: The Navy should actually come forward and say, "Alright, you fellas. These are the
testing procedures that have got to be undertaken. Go forward and get this done. Whether it's blood
tests, X-rays, whatever it is, just go forward and get it done. We'll pick up the tab."

MATT PEACOCK: Only a small percentage of those exposed will develop beryllium poisoning but it
seems likely that at least 3,000 ex-servicemen are at risk, and possibly many more.

KERRY O'BRIEN: It does have a slight ring of the asbestos saga about it. That report from Matt