Former RAAF firefighters exposed to toxic chemicals
August 3 2012
Former RAAF firefighters are being struck down by cancer and neurological diseases they say are caused by the burning of toxic chemicals at bases around the country.
One such site is Point Cook in Melbourne’s west, where firefighters were trained to put out chemical fires – simulating blazes typical of plane crashes.
The work was hard and hot, and according to the firemen great fun, but following orders might now be coming back to haunt them.
Pat Mildren is one of 1,200 ex-RAAF firefighters who trained at Point Cook, and like many of his colleagues has suffered serious health problems.
He has had both bowel and bladder cancer, and believes the chemicals he was exposed to during his time in the RAAF are to blame.
“When I did my basic training course I can remember my senior instructor saying to me: ‘get in there you mob of bloody wimps, a bit of smoke’s not going to kill you’,” he said.
“Twenty years later when I returned there as the chief instructor I said exactly the same thing to the trainees that were going through.
“And it was killing them and is killing them still.”
Mr Mildren says the same thing happened at ever major RAAF base in the country.
“I believe that it was a chemical dumping ground. We were there to burn the chemicals that they wanted to get rid of,” he said.
“Anything and everything that they wanted to get rid of they sent to us to burn. This went on on every major RAAF base in the Air Force.
“We were putting out fires six to seven times a week and every time you’d be completely immersed in smoke.”
RAAF fire pits across the country became a dumping ground for any company looking to get rid of their toxic waste.
John Lyons, a former fire fighter who was based in Townsville, said during his time in the RAAF they burnt everything from furniture to industrial waste, all without proper protection.
“At Townsville we sort of burnt anything – we had tyres, batteries, de-icing fluid used to come from the aircraft, and all the old furniture, mattresses used to get thrown into the pit. Anything they wanted to get rid of,” he said.
“The protection was nil, virtually all we had was a type of raincoat. We didn’t have breathing apparatus.”
Mr Lyons, who now suffers from leukaemia, says while they were not told what much of the fuel was, it was obvious how toxic it was.
“We had purple stuff, we had mustard coloured stuff. It was like sludge coming out of the drums, it was so thick you’d have lay the drums down on the side of the pits to empty themselves out,” he said.
“They’d put off a shocking smell, you’d open the bung and push the drum over and leave it on the side of the pit, and you’d have to shift away because the smell was so great.”
Lawrie Heath knows all too well the smell and feel of the toxic sludge – he had to wade through it.
“One instance I had a fellow fireman fall into the mess, and the fire was coming towards us and he was completely in the liquid. And I went up to my waist to drag him out,” he said.
“It was very heavy liquid, very thick and sticky, you sort of stuck to it and took a lot of effort to get him and myself to get out of the pit before the fire got there.”
Despite living at the idyllic Bateman’s Bay on the New South Wales south coast, he has not enjoyed the views for nearly a year.
He can barely leave his house.
Last November Mr Heath, 63, was preparing for a RAAF reunion when he suddenly became paralysed from the waist down and almost died.
He was diagnosed with an extremely rare condition called acute transverse myelitis that causes swelling of the spinal fluid, and says he believes it was caused by his exposure to the toxic chemicals.
“I personally believe that my condition and all the other conditions of my fellow firemen that I served with is directly related to our exposure to these chemicals. There is no other answer to it,” he said.
His wife Irene says the condition has left him completely dependent on her.
“Completely life changing. Lawrie can’t even put his shoes and socks on there’s a lot of days he can’t dress himself,” she said.
And Mr Heath says the man he saved in the Townsville fire pit is also battling a long list of ailments.
“He’s had extremely bad problems with his lungs, cancers in the lung, other growths because he swallowed a lot of this stuff,” he said.
“He’s not a very well man today and also has auto-immune problems where his immune system attacks his own body, similar to what I’ve got.”
‘They should be responsible’
Mr Heath’s doctor, John Berick, says the Federal Government should take responsibility for the firefighters’ illnesses.
“If they’ve been exposed to such severe toxic elements in their service they should be responsible for looking after them even though there’s not a definitive proof on the balance of probabilities there’s the very strong chance it was the cause of his problems,” he said.
A recent Federal Government investigation found 120 different chemicals in the soil at Point Cook’s fire training ground.
Among them were 12 deadly toxins, including benzene, a known cause of leukaemia.
Mr Mildren says it is proof of the validity of their claims.
“What we’ve asked for is a full-scale inquiry to find out if these chemicals have caused our health conditions, because in the past we have been told that we had no proof that we actually used all these chemicals. Now we have the proof,” he said.
Almost $30 million is being spent to clean up the Point Cook site, but so far nothing has been paid in compensation to the RAAF firefighters.
In a statement to 7.30, Defence acknowledged that RAAF staff were “involved in the handling and burning of many chemicals” and that “some of these can cause chronic health problems”.
It says firefighters “concerned about health effects they believe are associated with the exposure to chemicals should lodge claims with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs”.
So many different chemicals and so many different diseases makes it virtually impossible to directly link cause and effect.
As a result, Defence is reviewing the rules governing military compensation for firefighters.
The recent discovery of a cancer cluster at the Country Fire Authority’s training base at Fiskville, west of Melbourne, adds weight to the claims.
RAAF firefighters also trained at Fiskville and the Air Force provided many of the chemicals burnt by the CFA