Vets' war paint tied to deformities

By Martin Johnston

Jack Stanaway found the link between DBP and inherited deformity when researching family illnesses.Picture / Turnbull Library
Jack Stanaway found the link between DBP and inherited deformity when researching family illnesses.Picture / Turnbull Library

A chemical smeared on soldiers' clothing has been connected to inherited defects in their children

It was a thick liquid which we had to paint on the seams of our trousers and shirts.Jack Stanaway, former soldier Former soldier Jack Stanaway recalls regularly plastering a pesticide on his uniform nearly 50 years ago, a chemical now implicated in harming the children of war veterans.

"It was a thick liquid which we had to paint on the seams of our trousers and shirts, and hopefully that would keep the mites at bay to avoid them biting," said Mr Stanaway, 75, of Christchurch.

He was speaking after the publication yesterday of findings that the sons of war veterans exposed to dibutylphthalate (DBP) are at increased risk of two types of genital malformation and daughters, in a surprise result, are at increased risk of breast cancer.

In the offspring of men who served in Malaya (Malaysia since 1963), the Canterbury University study found elevated rates of undescended testes; hypospadias - the urethra exiting the penis other than at the tip; and breast cancer.

After the Agent Orange scandal, the Government made grants to veterans with certain illnesses linked to their exposure to the defoliant during the Vietnam War, and set up a trust that can make grants to veterans and their families.

From 1963 to 1965, Mr Stanaway was in Malaya to help defend it during the so-called "confrontation" with Indonesia. He said soldiers were happy to use DBP to protect themselves from bush typhus, a flu-like sickness transmitted by mites.

"Eight years ago I was doing some family history, looking at forebears who had died of different diseases and conditions. I progressed that on to diseases that children in the family had contracted. Knowing my son had hypospadias [surgically corrected when he was a baby], I googled that."

He found references to "DBP" and vaguely recognised the acronym.

"I had access to an army medical book. I looked in there and it made reference to this insecticide containing DBP used by soldiers against contracting scrub typhus.

"I wrote to the New Zealand Malaya Veterans Association asking if any other soldiers had written in and mentioned anything about their children and grandchildren suffering from any disorders."

After canvassing members about this, the association received several reports and approached Canterbury University, whose professor of toxicology, Ian Shaw, undertook the study of New Zealand's 1948-60 Malaya veterans with research student Matthew Carran.

Professor Shaw said it was a small study - 58 veterans who had 155 children after their Malayan service and nine cases of the three disorders - but the increased risk of disorder they found was statistically robust.

They are the first to report the effects of DBP, a potent endocrine-disrupting chemical, in offspring of men exposed to the pesticide.

"... the abnormalities observed ... have [previously] been associated with exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals in animal and human studies but not specifically via exposure of males," they said in yesterday's NZ Medical Journal.

They argue that gene regulation in the affected soldiers' sperm was altered by reducing the ratio of testosterone to oestrogen, causing a degree of "biochemical feminisation" in male offspring and increased oestrogen-mediated cancer risk in females.

Professor Shaw said it was unlikely the effect would be passed on to the veterans' grandchildren, but this was uncertain.

The chemical

* Used to ward off ticks that carry bush typhus disease.

* Called dibutylphthalate.

* NZ soldiers in Malaya put it on the seams of their uniforms.

* Some would have been absorbed through their skin.

The study's findings

* Sons of men exposed to the chemical are at increased risk of malformed genitals.

* Daughters at increased risk of breast cancer.

- NZ Herald

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