LEAD Action News

LEAD Action News Vol 2 no 4 Spring 1994.  ISSN 1324-6011
Incorporating Lead Aware Times ( ISSN 1440-4966) and Lead Advisory Service News ( ISSN 1440-0561)
The journal of The LEAD (Lead Education and Abatement Design) Group Inc.

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Death Comes in an Invisible Chemical Soup

by Julian Cribb.
Reprinted from The Weekend Australian

Lung disease and premature deaths in our cities may he due to a previously unrecognised threat in the air we breathe.

Blinding headaches, asthma attacks, mysterious rashes and abdominal lumps, memory loss and deep fatigue are the legacy of the Gulf War for thousands of soldiers who served there, rapidly becoming as recognisable as Agent Orange symptoms were to an earlier generation of servicemen.

But to Dr Arthur Tucker the signs looked all too familiar. He'd seen them before when he was chief medical officer at the nuclear facility at Lucas Heights in the 1960s. The same symptoms have been reported among miners, industry workers and increasingly, the general urban population.

Nobody was interested then, and few are now, in the theory which Dr Tucker developed: that many people suffer from extreme sensitisation caused by multiple exposure to chemical particles so minute they cannot be seen by any but the most advanced equipment - grains of poisonous metals only a few atoms in dimension.

Evidence that Dr Tucker may have pinpointed the source of one of the greatest plagues afflicting modern society is rapidly accumulating.

Drifting in the air above our cities is an invisible pall of microscopic particles. Over Sydney alone, a thousand tonnes of lead from exhaust emissions hangs in the atmosphere daily, too light ever to sink to earth but constantly breathed in and out by every gulping motor, and by every inhabitant.

Up to one third of airborne pollution may consist of ultrafine particles, measuring from 330 billionths of a metre in diameter to objects vanishingly small - vastly tinier than smoke particles and totally invisible.

Conventional medical theory holds such ultrafine particles are far too minute to linger in the lungs or to be absorbed into the blood supply, let alone to affect the body. They therefore ought to have no effect on us.

That was until Dr Bill Burch, at the John Curtin School of Medical Research, achieved one of the outstanding world-firsts of recent Australian science - the discovery and first application of the buckeyball, a novel carbon molecule, for medical imaging.

Dr Burch found that a vapour consisting of buckeyball molecules, measuring only 10 billionths of a metre across (10nm), was readily absorbed through the lungs and into the bloodstream. For his purposes, this made it ideal, if linked with a radioactive particle, for radio imaging of the body.

In the process he provided evidence that what Dr Tucker had been asserting for the better part of three decades was accurate - that ultrafine particles can get inside us via the lungs, the capillaries and bloodstream, with unpredictable effects. Those effects are liable to be magnified if the particles of certain metals have been heated or if they combine with other chemicals.

The symptoms of this peculiarly subtle form of poisoning are many and varied. Dr Tucker says: rashes, nausea, changes in red or white blood cells, bleeding in the lungs or gut, malfunction of spleen or liver, breathing difficulties, nervous degeneration, weakness and lassitude.

Dr Tucker is a stubborn, unrelenting man. A former World War II fighter pilot, he went on to become principal research scientist and site medical officer at the Australian Atomic Energy Commission (now ANSTO) at Lucas Heights. There he encountered six cases of a mysterious and incurable lung disease, sarcoidosis. Probing into these, the authorities were inclined to attribute them to exposure to radioactive material but Dr Tucker disagreed.

Based on studies of industries with high levels of sarcoidosis, he concluded the disease was probably triggered by the inhalation of minute particles of heat-activated uranium, beryllium or styrene - materials frequently handled at the AAEC. Another case came from Melbourne University of a researcher exposed to heated scandium.

The medical literature threw up a number of highly suggestive parallels - workers making early fluorescent tubes suffered from a disease called berylliosis, caused when the beryllium-coated tubes were baked, then reamed, releasing an invisible dust of ultrafine, oxidised particles. Another disease, Shaver's disease, occurred among Canadian crane drivers working in fumes of heated bauxite in an aluminium plant. Uranium miners also showed a high level of sarcoidosis although it was usually wrongly diagnosed as TB.

The reason the diseases went undetected, Dr Tucker says, is that doctors, not knowing of their existence, simply assumed a well-known cause, such as radiation at Lucas Heights, and carried out the wrong diagnostic tests.

Then came Gulf War Syndrome. Among the many possible causes of lung complaints and chemical sensitisation among thousands of veterans one stood out: the use by the US forces of depleted uranium to make ultra-heavy armour-piercing shells and tank armour.

During the colossal temperatures generated when a shell punches into its target, a cloud of ultrafine metallic oxides is given off, drifting like a fog across the battlefield.

"It's invisible. You cannot see it. Many doctors and scientists are simply unaware of the possibility. They cannot believe that particles they don't know about could be causing these diseases," Dr Tucker says.

Dr Burch said it was the thought of the pall of lead drifting over our cities that persuaded him of the risk and that Dr Tucker might be on to something.

"If you can suspend 1000 tonnes of lead over Sydney, you can suspend anything provided it is small enough," he says.

But the lead, and all the other chemical and metal particles, are not merely being suspended. They are also being sucked in by a million engines, super-heated, then spat back in to the air we breathe - again and again, many times a day. What toxic witches' brew is formed in this process nobody can say.

Dr Tucker tested his theory on lab rats suffering from kidney disease on a certain diet. Study of the diet revealed it contained ultrafine food particles, and it was the inhalation of these, not their digestion, which produced the disease. Changing the diet quickly got rid of the problem.

He also demonstrated a fluid mechanism, previously rejected by medical scientists, by which the particles could pass out of the lung capillaries into the blood stream. Dr Burch's radio-imaging research has confirmed this.

"Airborne particles have been forgotten since most big cities won the smog war back in the 1960s. Because we can no longer see them, we don't worry about them,' Dr Tucker says.

"And many of these particle-caused diseases are being diagnosed as simply asthma, emphysema or allergies when in reality we are dealing with multiple chemical sensitisation.

"That sensitisation can cause rashes, changes in blood circulation, nausea, bleeding, liver problems, breathing difficulties and nervous degeneration.'

It is ironic that medical science may have overlooked one of the most damning pieces of evidence, Dr Burch believes.

One of the symptoms of the condition is reduced blood flow in the lungs but if you x-ray someone who has reduced blood flow, the image comes up clear because less blood is present. The x-ray looks "clean".

Dr Burch found 30-40 per cent of Canberra residents he studied had abnormal lung blood flow. Overseas colleagues in the Netherlands city of Utrecht and Liverpool in England reported 70- 80 per cent of patients had lung defects.

Damaged lungs may, in other words, he far more common among city dwellers than previously suspected, simply because the most common test reveals victims as "clear".

Indirect support for their view may exist in the epidemic of asthma and other bronchial diseases in Australia. More than 14,000 Sydney residents died of lung diseases between 1981 and 1988, according to a study by Macquarie University's Professor Peter Cursor.

"An unacceptable proportion of these deaths were untimely or premature,' he said in a recent report. Thirty-seven per cent of deaths occurred in people aged less than 60 years.

Professor Cursor also noted a distinctive regional pattern, with concentrations in the inner city and outer west - the two areas where pollution is most persistent.

He attributes the problem to a multiplicity of causes - air pollution, sick buildings, allergens, climate and season - but notes the relationship between cause and effect is not well understood.

Earlier this year a report in the journal New Scientist said that unpublished British Government data estimated 10,000 Britons a year were dying as a result of fine particles in exhaust fumes. These particles were in a category called PM10, meaning they were particulate matter smaller than 10 micrometres (millionths of a metre) across.

Originally dismissed as harmless, recent US studies have caused the British Government to re-evaluate the risk of ultrafine dust. Both British and US research has now revealed a strong link between increases in PM10 levels and respiratory death rates although the exact pathway has not yet been made clear.

"The point is that we're getting the same class of diseases from a wide range of these ultrafine substances,' Dr Tucker says. 'But because of the tendency of science to focus on one particular cause, we're not seeing the forest for the trees. What is so important is the pathway into the body, not the precise chemical content.

"It is the whole invisible chemical soup in the air of our cities we should be concerned about."

The Weekend Australian

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