Nuclear dust settled across 1950s Adelaide


RADIOACTIVE clouds from the British nuclear tests at Maralinga passed over Adelaide on at least three occasions in the late-1950s. Two monitoring stations at Urrbrae and Roseworthy secretly set up by a prominent scientist, Hedley Marston, revealed the radioactive fallout settled throughout the metropolitan area and other parts of the state.

Later, research by a Commonwealth government committee revealed it contained three highly dangerous by-products of atomic bombs – strontium-90, caesium 137 and radioactive iodine.

Secret tests conducted by successive federal governments between 1957 and 1978 confirmed the presence of strontium-90 in the bones of dead South Australians from stillborn babies to adults.

The radioactive isotope – which causes leukemia and other cancers by penetrating bone marrow – was also found in sheep bones, flour, milk, soil, cabbages and rainwater.

Now, up to 40 years later, mothers of some of the children who had bones removed have been asked if they want small plastic bottles containing the ash samples returned to them. The repatriation of the remains follows international controversy over the detection of strontium-90 within the populations of Britain and the US.

Publicity here and overseas forced the Federal Government 18 months ago to prepare a database with the details of 21,830 Australians who had bones removed.

In SA, there were 3058 individual bone samples taken from dead South Australians – predominantly stillborn babies, infants, toddlers, young children and teenagers.

A hotline set up in February by the Department of Human Services has received 192 inquiries from families asking whether bones were taken from their children. The database prepared by the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency has resulted in 45 of these people being told bones were taken.

Five families have asked for the small plastic bottles containing ash from these bones to be returned to them. That leaves the Department of Human Services with a further 895 plastic bottles which are labelled with the donor's name and identification number.

Counsellors have done their best to explain to the families why the bones were removed – and how the discovery of strontium-90 in populations worldwide eventually led to the banning of atmospheric nuclear testing. What they haven't been able to answer are questions about what effects, if any, strontium-90 ingestion has on the human body.

This is because no research has been conducted in Australia on what drinking strontium-90 in cow's milk or eating it in bread has done to our health, especially children who were born between the 1950s and 1970s. That research – on a national scale – is long overdue.

How it is done is something for scientists to decide but with growing reports of multiple cancers, leukemia, birth defects and premature deaths among veterans of nuclear tests and their families, the time of ignoring the inevitable has passed.

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