Study finds cancer prevalent among NZ veterans who witnessed French nuclear explosions in 1973

Cancer is prevalent among veterans who witnessed French nuclear explosions in Mururoa in 1973, while many of their children have fertility problems, new research has shown.

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Cancer is prevalent among veterans who witnessed the nuclear explosions in 1973, while many of their children have fertility problems, new research has shown. Source: 1 NEWS

The University of Otago study of 83 veterans and 65 of their children, published today in the New Zealand Medical Journal, shows 37 per cent of the veterans have a variety of cancers - from prostate cancer to non-Hodgkin lymphoma, leukaemia and skin cancers. 

For children of the veterans, forty per cent have reported fertility issues, citing endometriosis, miscarriages and polycystic ovarian syndrome. 

By comparison, only 16 per cent of veterans identified fertility as an issue.

Tony Cox is a Mururoa veteran and has suffered cutaneous non-Hodgkin lymphoma. He said he was surprised many years ago when asked by an oncologist how he would have got that rare type of cancer.

“He said, ‘It’s very rare and you only get it from excessive doses to ionised radiation,’ and I said, ‘I did go to a bomb test in '73,’ and he looked at me in dismay and said, ‘That’ll do it,’” Mr Cox told TVNZ1’s Breakfast.

“He [the oncologist] said in his entire career he never ever thought he would come across a patient with this type of cancer.

“He said, ‘I look forward to working with you.’ I said, 'Thank you very much, that’s wonderful.’ What else could you say?”

Mr Cox, who was on the HMNZS Otago, hoped his struggles and the struggles of the children and grandchildren were “a part of life that I hope no one has to go through themselves”.

“It’s been a hell of a journey. It’s been a struggle, and to get some recognition for ourselves was bad enough, but to try get some recognition for our children, grandchildren and their descendants before we pass on has almost been impossible so let’s hope today brings a new chapter,” he said.

In the survey, many veterans expressed their dissatisfaction at having been sent to observe nuclear detonations without being informed of the possible health consequences.

There is also significant ill-feeling towards the Labour Government of the time from surveyed veterans.

Mr Cox said then Prime Minister Norman Kirk was on the HMNZS Otago the morning it left Auckland.

“He was walking down the waist of the ship and spoke to us. He spoke to me and said, ‘Don’t worry son, you’ll be OK, but if anything does go wrong we will look after you,’” Mr Cox remembered.

“Well Norm, it’s been a long time.”

The study base was crew members of HMNZS Otago and HMNZS Canterbury who were deployed to Mururoa and witnessed the French nuclear explosions in 1973, along with their children.

The two frigates were sent to Mururoa in French Polynesia, where France conducted extensive nuclear testing, to protest for a nuclear free Pacific.

Most veterans are aged between 65 and 74, while their children are between 35 and 44 years old.

Anxiety and depression were prevalent in both veterans and their children.

University of Otago director of veterans’ health research, associate professor David McBride, said veterans are concerned about radiation exposure, chromosome damage and heritability.

The number of cancers prevalent among the veterans was high, with Dr McBride saying it seems a greater proportion of veterans are affected compared to the general population.

That is even though the number of skin cancers, especially, among all New Zealanders in this age group, is high compared to other countries.

“Ionising radiation can cause changes in the chromosomes carrying the genetic code; such changes having been shown in nuclear veterans, but we know neither if these changes result in disease, nor whether they can be passed on by fathers to offspring,” he said.

“Common conditions may be inherited through the way the genes express themselves through decoding; however, this ‘epigenetic’ mechanism is extremely complex and we need to know exactly where to look for the signals that are present.

“The best chance of detecting heritable change is to look at cancers, where we can look at specific changes in the code, so establishing a registry of veterans and their offspring and storing tissue samples for later analysis is the best way of doing this.”

Currently, the veterans are covered for any medical repercussions of nuclear exposure, but not their descendants. 

Mururoa Nuclear Veterans Group President Gavin Smith says there are cases of veterans’ grandchildren having medical problems as a result of their grandfather’s exposure to radiation.

There is Government support available for these veterans, however only 21 of the veterans in the study and three of their descendants are receiving support, while 77 per cent are not.