By TOBY WALKER
A FORMER sailor living in the Clarence Valley has claimed the Australian Defence Force (ADF) failed to warn personnel they had been exposed to a toxic metal between the 1950s and 1985.
Iluka resident Peter Robertson yesterday continued to speak out about his dissatisfaction with the way the government has handled claims that at least 3000 defence personnel had been exposed to beryllium.
Mr Robertson's battle began last November when he requested his naval medical records for a pension claim he was seeking from the Department of Veteran Affairs (DVA) that related to a post-traumatic stress disorder that went back to his service in Vietnam.
He had never heard of beryllium before, but that all changed when he read a note dated November 28, 1980, that he said had been signed and stamped by his medical officer on the HMAS Supply.
The document, which Mr Robertson has retained, stated he had been exposed to beryllium dust through the use of beryllium copper needles on Jason pistols, a paint stripping tool that was used aboard the ships.
Mr Robertson had requested his medical records once before, in 1996, and had not sighted the document then. However, eight years later it was included, he believes accidentally.
"I've got this form, a daily medical record, signed by a doctor," he said.
"They (the ADF) knew about it in 1980 and they didn't stop using it until 1985 and they told no one who was exposed to it.
"No one was tested, virtually they didn't want us to know.
"If people knew about it and they got crook, at least they could tell the doctor they had been exposed to beryllium, it might help the doctor."
His efforts to find out more about the beryllium exposure were passed back and forth between the Department of Navy and DVA, with both claiming they could not help him any further.
When his requests appeared to hit a brick wall, Mr Robertson took his story to a major metropolitan newspaper, a decision that prompted the ADF to organise and pay for a physical examination at Sydney's Royal Prince Alfred Hospital six weeks ago.
Mr Robertson has since been told by the hospital that the equipment needed for blood tests, deemed the most reliable method to assess chronic beryllium disease (CBD), is not available in Australia.
Like asbestos-related diseases, CBD has no known cure and can take up to 40 years to show itself through symptoms which include chest pain, skin rashes, pneumonia-like illness and shortness of breath.
With news that his blood could not be properly tested for CBD, Mr Robertson disputed Veterans' Affairs Minister De-Anne Kelly's reassurances that defence force members concerned about beryllium exposure had access to compensation.
"If they've got a longstanding compensation system in place, where's the system?," he said.
"If they can't test for it, where's the system?
"I think what they're trying to do is put it on a backburner and are hoping it will go away but I don't think it's going to go away.
"In my opinion it's criminal neglect. For one reason, they could have told us.
"They've got a case on their hands like asbestos and they know it."