Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Atomic blast trips cancer time bomb

Atomic blast trips cancer time bomb

August 06, 2008

John Collins believes his time in Hiroshima after World War II left him with bone marrow cancer.

By Jim Campbell WHEN the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima 63 years ago today, it paved the way for a cancer time bomb inside Toowoomba man John Collins.

Mr Collins served in the Australian Army as part of the clean-up crew at Hiroshima 23 months after the infamous bomb wiped out the city.

He operated bulldozers and other machinery for four months, and it was in that four months he came into close contact with fallout from the bomb that Mr Collins says caused his bone marrow cancer (polycythemia vera or PV).

After four months, Mr Collins said his health deteriorated significantly.

"My hair started to fall out and I actually started to urinate blood," Mr Collins told The Chronicle not long after his 80th birthday.

"They took me to the hospital tent for a check-up, but couldn't determine what was wrong, so I was eventually sent home."

It was after he returned to Australia that Mr Collins faced another battle.

He was diagnosed with cancer and, in 1988, he approached the Department of Veterans' Affairs to help with his medical treatment costs.

"I have no doubt at all that my illness was caused directly from the work I did at Hiroshima," Mr Collins said.

But the department ruled otherwise. Between 1989 and 2004, Mr Collins made five unsuccessful appeals against the decision.

"The government told me in writing that by the time our clean-up crew got there (Hiroshima) radiation levels would have been negligible.

"But actually, fallout material has a half-life of about four-and-a-half billion years."

Their decisions hinged on a medical statement issued by the Repatriation Medical Authority that said, "Collins' PV can only be caused by his inability to get treatment for it on active service."

That statement, Mr Collins said, was completely nonsensical.

"Britain, North America and New Zealand accept contact with atomic fallout as a direct cause for my illness, but Australia still refuses to," he said.

"I wouldn't waste the last 20 years of my life fighting for this if I didn't know it was right and there was an injustice being committed against myself and my fellow veterans.

"What I'm fighting for is a legal principal and for disadvantaged veterans it wouldn't make any difference to the war pension I currently get. It's just a matter of justice."

Mr Collins has published The War of the Veterans, a book that tells his story. He has a powerful ally in Dr Roger Dunlop, past president of the Australian Medical Association.

Dr Dunlop, a nuclear veteran himself, said the case was very complex, but the law refusing Mr Collins compensation was simply wrong.

"What we're trying to do is to have the new government repeal the law," Dr Dunlop said.

"There was no doubt he had the beginnings of PV when he left Japan."

Dr Dunlop said he had even considered taking the issue to the International Court of Justice.

"Persistence is the only way to do it," he said.

"And John Collins is bloody persistent.

"He's got a very strong sense of public duty and he's given years of hard work to our veterans.

"I think we will win in the long run."

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