RAAF personnel who worked with jet fuel suffered damage to cells with unknown long-term consequences, groundbreaking research says
By the National Reporting Team’s Dan Oakes
Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) personnel who worked with widely used jet fuel suffered damage to their body’s cells with unknown long-term consequences, according to groundbreaking research released today.
The revelation raises the possibility that a wide range of Defence personnel could seek compensation that, to date, has been only granted to a comparatively small number of people who worked on the infamous F1-11 deseal/reseal project.
Defence’s senior physician in occupational and environmental medicine, Dr Ian Gardner, described the findings as a “part of the puzzle” and a “hypothesis-making study”, and pointed it out that it was one of a series of pieces of research currently underway.
“What it shows is there is evidence of small but persistent cellular damage,” Dr Gardner told the ABC
He said it was not yet clear what the long-term effects of that damage might be.
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Dr Gardner said it was essential that anybody who believed they had adverse health impacts from exposure to jet fuel put in a claim to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“For the future though there are a lot of other aircraft maintenance workers who have done similar jobs on other aircraft types, and now Defence and DVA and Air Force are considering what additional work should be done in relation to those other people who are not actually on the F1-11 programs but have done essentially similar work,” Dr Gardner said.
The Jet Fuel Syndrome Study also shows that the fuel is more toxic to the body’s cells than the two solvents initially blamed for the sickness suffered by the deseal/reseal workers, and that the toxicity is even higher when those solvents and the fuel were mixed.
The results of the research project, headed by Professor Francis Bowling of Brisbane’s Mater Hospital, were handed to Defence last September, and have been the subject of significant scrutiny and review due to the potential significance of the findings.
They will give heart to former and serving Defence personnel who believe they have been left out in the cold by Defence after developing serious health complaints while working with fuel and other substances.
Damage not confined to direct contact
The research was commissioned to investigate why some people who worked on the deseal/reseal project suffered significant health impacts — such as depression, anxiety, erectile dysfunction, memory loss, skin conditions, gastro-intestinal problems and an increased risk of cancer — while others did not.
Defence made ex-gratia payments and offered health care to the deseal/reseal workers on the grounds their health complaints were caused exposure to particular solvents.
This allowed them to reject calls for compensation from a wider range of people who worked on other projects.
This study does not say jet fuel can cause malignancy, what it suggests is there are mechanisms that might be a possible explanation for cancers.
Dr Ian Gardner
Now this new research shows jet fuel itself damages cells, and the damage is not confined to areas of the body that come into direct contact with the fuel.
Instead the fuel components are believed to be transported round the body to other organs.
Additionally, the research hypothesised that people with inherited defects in their mitochondria might be at more risk than others.
Two maintenance workers on the deseal/reseal project who died of severe neurodegenerative disease were found after post-mortems to have such defects.
A fact sheet released with the study said: “Exposed veterans should be reassured that changes to cellular functions detected are not expected to have immediate or adverse effects on their health. The clinical significance and relationship of these changes to the degree of exposure is unable to be determined at this stage.”
However the wording of the report proper differs, instead saying “immediate or severe health consequences” are not expected, and goes on to say “the changes support findings from the other studies that there is a possible increased risk of developing health problems”.
Damaged cells may live with malignant potential
In addition, the report said it was possible some of the damaged cells may live on in the body “with malignant potential,” stating further that “the cell culture methods could not determine the long term effects”.
Dr Gardner said: “This study does not say jet fuel can cause malignancy, what it suggests is there are mechanisms that might be a possible explanation for cancers.”
The report also warned there were “small but significant and consistent changes” in the make-up of some genes that have been linked to neurological changes and neurodegenerative disorders.
The study found there was no evidence of chromosomal or genetic damage to the cells.
The components of the fuel exhibiting toxicity are common to most fuels. Consideration should be given to further studies of workers exposed to fuel of any type.
Jet Fuel Syndrome Study
However, it is possible the effects of the cell damage could in fact be passed down to offspring through “epigenetic” means, whereby the genes are altered by outside influences, such as fuel toxicity.
“Some epigenetic changes can be transferred down through successive generations but currently have not been shown to cause birth defects or mutation in offspring,” the report said.
The findings are not only significant for the RAAF and it workers, past and present exposed to jet fuel, but also to other arms of the Defence Force that use similar fuels, and also to the civil aviation industry, although those workers are less likely to have been exposed to the fuel in the manner RAAF personnel were.
“The components of the fuel exhibiting toxicity are common to most fuels. Consideration should be given to further studies of workers exposed to fuel of any type,” the report said.
Defence is now consulting with the civil aviation industry and other industries where workers might have been exposed to jet fuel.