Friday, July 4, 2008

NSW Health 'knew home's radiation risk'

NSW health authorities knew a Sydney home had unsafe levels of radiation but did not inform the residents - one of whom has since developed cancer, a NSW inquiry has been told.

Benjamin Nurse and his daughter Julienne Nurse say the NSW health department was aware their home in Nelson Parade, Hunters Hill, had unsafe levels of radiation related to a uranium smelter that had once operated nearby.

However, they told the NSW parliamentary inquiry the unsafe radiation levels were concealed from them.

The inquiry was told radiation tests early this year deemed a bedroom of the Nurse's house to be a radiation "hot pot".

That bedroom was formerly occupied by Danielle Nurse, who developed thyroid cancer two years ago.

The family lived at 11 Nelson Parade from 1973 to 1980, when they learned their neighbour had been diagnosed with leukaemia - one of five reported cancer cases in their street.

Mr Nurse told the inquiry that when he bought the house, the NSW health department issued a certificate deeming it to be safe for habitation.

His daughter Julienne went on to challenge a subsequent report by the health department that stated radon gas testing had been done at their property in 1977 and it was found to be within safe levels.

Radon is a colourless gas that forms from the decay of radium, which was extracted from uranium ore at the smelter.

It is more harmful than exposure to the more common gamma radiation.

"We don't recall anyone ever entering our house to do radon tests," Ms Nurse told the inquiry.

"If there were conducted, they were done on the land and not shown to us."

She also said the department determined their home should be monitored, but had failed to do so.

"There is one internal letter from within the department of health stating that a radon monitor should be put inside the house," Ms Nurse said.

"But within two weeks of that we were told not to worry about any radon tests, not to worry about any medical tests, that our health was completely safe."

The department bought the Nurse's home in 1980 for $250,000, which was one-third the price of neighbouring homes at the time, Mr Nurse said.

Over the years it also purchased numbers 7 and 9 Nelson Pde, which have remained vacant and are planned for clean-up.

Remediation was carried out on number 11 in 1987 and this was later sold in 1989 after it was deemed safe by the health department.

The current residents, who bought in 2001, left the house vacant in February.

They are demanding their property also be cleaned-up following tests they commissioned from a private company, Australian Radiation Services.

ARS health physicist Joe Young told the inquiry on Friday that number 11 registered radiation levels up to 350 times the normal level detected in the suburb, and four times the normal level of gamma radiation.

NSW Health commissioned the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) this year to perform tests, and they returned results similar to that of ARS.

Civil engineer Gavin Mudd estimated that 2,000 to 3,000 tonnes of soil and other material suspected of being tainted with radium, heavy metals and chemicals from the smelter operations should be removed.

"It's a high profile area, it's something with residents around, so I don't think it would be easily done in that sense".

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