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Thursday, 21 February 1980
Page: 216

Mr ADERMANN (Fisher) (Minister for Veterans' Affairs) - by leave- Mr Speaker, I seek the indulgence of the House while I make a statement on a matter which has created a good deal of public interest since the House rose at the end of the Budget sittings last year. I refer to claims by some Australian veterans of the war in Vietnam that contact with herbicides, particularly agent orange, during their service in Vietnam has caused disabilities in themselves and abnormalities in their children.

Agent orange was one of the herbicides mixtures used in the Vietnam war between 1962 and 1971 by United States forces for the purpose of denying enemy forces the cover of dense jungle foliage and to destroy their food crops. It was called agent orange because of the orange identification ring on the containers in which it was carried. Other herbicides used in Vietnam had code names such as agent white, agent purple, agent green, agent pink and agent blue, but these were not used as widely as agent orange. Agent orange was a mixture of 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T. The component 2,4,5-T contains an impurity, one of a group of toxic substances known as dioxins.

It has been claimed that exposure to agent orange and other herbicides in Vietnam has affected the health of Defence personnel who served there. Health problems which have been mentioned include fatigue, skin rashes, diminished sexual drive, cancer, liver damage, psychological problems and birth defects in offspring. Others who have no symptoms fear that health problems might develop in the future.

In the first half of last year, reference was made to herbicide exposure as a possible cause of disabilities by a few Australian veterans making a claim on my Department, but as recently as early December of last year we had received only a handful of such claims. By the end of December, 20 claims mentioning herbicides had been received by the Department. By the end of last week, following the recent extensive media coverage, 149 claims had been received. The independent repatriation boards which determine eligibility have decided 13 of these claims but, to date, in none has it been accepted that the disability is due to contact with herbicides. Some disabilities have been accepted as related to service on other grounds. I might also mention that the United States Veterans Administration, to the end of November last year, had received some 750 claims relating to herbicide exposure from a Vietnam veteran population of 2.6 million. Only two were accepted as due to contact with herbicides, and these were for a skin condition called chloracne which has been linked to dioxin. Some claims have been granted for other reasons.

Mr Deputy Speaker,let me clearly state the principles which govern the provision of compensation and medical care for Australian veterans and their dependants for incapacity or death related to their war service. The repatriation legislation covers all veterans of all wars for any disabilities which may be related to their service. The access to compensation provided is generous by any standard, as the major exservice organisations agree. However, under these principles there must be a logical basis for a presumption that a given disability is related to a veteran's military service.

It should be understood, Mr Deputy Speaker, that various overseas studies thus far have produced no confirmation that disabilities reported by veterans are due to exposure to herbicides. The United States National Academy of Sciences in 1974 reported after an extensive follow-up study of the effects of herbicides in Vietnam that there is no evidence of long term health effects in humans from the use of herbicides in Vietnam. Whilst there is no conclusive scientific evidence at this time that any of the conditions, except chloracne, reported by veterans and deformities in their children are related to any of the chemical components of agent orange or other herbicides used in Vietnam, we are actively seeking out the facts.

In view of the growing concern of the Australian veteran community, I decided that the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine at the University of Sydney should be asked whether an independent study could establish whether contact with agent orange could have caused the disabilities and deformities reported by Australian veterans. There has been some public criticism of the choice of this research body to undertake this study. Some persons have said that the School should not have been chosen, because its staff are public servants employed by the Commonwealth. The fact that the staff of the School are employed by the Commonwealth has no bearing on the matter. Any study done by any suitable body would have to be paid for by the Commonwealth. Also, I have been assured that although the School is administratively under the control of the Commonwealth Department of Health, it is completely independent academically as to the nature and the conduct of its investigations.

Also, there appears to be some public misunderstanding of the nature of this proposed study. It would be a scientific study, the basic purpose of which would be to gather medical statistics from which valid conclusions could be drawn. It would not be a public inquiry such as a royal commission to which people made submissions. For this reason the School will not be seeking such submissions in relation to its proposed study. However, interested persons and organisations are welcome to put to me or my Department any submissions which they feel may help in resolving this complex matter.

I have now received from the School an outline plan for a study of the possible adverse effects on the health of Australian veterans and their children of the herbicide agent orange and other chemicals used in Vietnam. Broadly, the plan provides for three groups of veterans to be studied, namely: Australian veterans who were in Vietnam and were exposed to agent orange and perhaps other herbicides of significance; Australian veterans who were in Vietnam but were not judged to be exposed to the chemical but perhaps exposed to other environmental hazards; and a matched comparable group of Australian veterans who did not go to Vietnam and were not exposed to any of the chemicals used there.

The three groups would be compared to see whether there were: Differences in the incidence of defined illness in the veterans themselves; differences in the incidence of certain genetic defects in their offspring compared with the control group; and differences in the incidence of birth defects in their offspring and the incidence of abortion in their wives.

The School has indicated that it would be necessary to interview a very large number of veterans and their children in all States. For the purposes of the study as proposed by the School, information on the veterans and units which served in Vietnam, the use of herbicides by Australian and United States forces by specific geographical area and time, medical records of servicemen, the present addresses of the persons involved, certain statistical data such as that recorded by the State Registrars-General of Births and Deaths, and medical information from private practitioners and State medical services, would need to be available to the School.

The School also proposes that there should be an external monitoring of the conduct of the study. This would include publishing the methodology in such a way that it is available for criticism by relevant authorities and establishing a scientific review committee of three or four nominated independent persons. Indeed, the honourable member for Isaacs (Mr Burns), in his notice of motion yesterday morning, proposed a very similar monitoring procedure.

I would comment on this initial advice by saying that the study which the School has proposed would obviously be a massive task. There are a number of basic conditions to be met before any actual study can commence. The co-operation of a number of government authorities will need to be assured and access obtained to a wide range of information in Australia and overseas. That is a short outline of the School 's responsibility.

Now, I wish to mention the other positive actions which we have taken in this matter. A committee of Ministers has been established to report to the Government on matters relating to the study of possible health effects of exposure to herbicides in Vietnam. This committee, comprising the Minister for Defence (Mr Killen), the Minister for Health (Mr MacKellar) and myself, will be supported by a committee of officials from the Departments of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Defence, Health and Veterans' Affairs. An immediate task of the committee of officials will be to examine the proposals of the School and to provide advice to the committee of Ministers. The Government will need to be sure that the basic criteria of the study can be met and that it will produce a valid outcome.

I can now add that as a result of preliminary considerations yesterday and this morning of the report of the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine by the committee of officials there will be consultations between the School and the Australian Department of Defence to ascertain whether the information essential to the proposed study can be gathered. Following these consultations there will be a need for further discussions with the School to assess the usefulness and value of the study in being able to establish positively whether there is any link between the conditions claimed by the Vietnam veterans and exposure to herbicides in Vietnam. When these discussions have been held and more information is obtained about a number of current United States studies to which I shall refer shortly, then and only then will the Government be in a position to evaluate the proposal and to make a definitive response on the course it should take in relation to the study proposed by the School.

In line with established practice concerning important matters affecting the welfare of the veteran community, I will be consulting with the federal body of the Vietnam Veterans Action Association and the Returned Services League of Australia on the proposed study. I have already met the National President of the Vietnam Veterans Action Association and I have made it known to the Association that I am available for further talks as soon as it is ready. As I said earlier, my Department is continuing to seek information on the effects of herbicides on Vietnam veterans and, as I announced on 11 February, a member of the Repatriation Commission, Mr Keith Medbury, OBE, will go to Washington tomorrow to see at first hand what is being done and has been done by certain American agencies studying this question.

I would add that there are a number of continuing studies in the United States to determine what, if any, long term health effects might arise from exposure to agent orange and other herbicides. For example, the United States Air Force will conduct a detailed health study of some 1,200 servicemen and veterans who were exposed as handlers of agent orange or who flew spraying missions. The data gathered on this group will be compared with that for a larger control group not exposed to herbicides. The United States Veterans Administration is also undertaking an epidemiological study of ground troops who served in Vietnam. In addition to these studies, there are several laboratory studies dealing with the chemistry, bio-chemistry, pharmacology and toxicology of dioxin and related compounds and epidemiological studies of industrial workers subjected to chronic herbicide exposure.

Apart from the study proposed by the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, my Department is collecting information from Australian veterans who report disabilities which they believe may be due to exposure to herbicides in Vietnam. Although no claims in relation to herbicides have been accepted so far by the Repatriation Boards, should any study reveal such a connection, all rejected claims will be reviewed. If it is established that there is a connection between birth defects in the children of veterans and exposure to herbicides in Vietnam, the Government will take appropriate action. I am sure that the House will agree that in this matter of agent orange or any other chemicals which may have affected the health of our Vietnam veterans and their children, the Government has acted swiftly, decisively and responsibly. I will report to the House on further steps and progressive achievements as they arise.

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