Silent Storm, Hedley Marston’s radiation tests

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CSIRO ScienceImage Hedley Marston 1900-1965 radition experiments put him at odds with the government

Image from CSIRO: Hedley Ralph Marston FRS FAA (26 August 1900 – 25 August 1965)

This documentary focuses on Australian “maverick” scientist, biochemist Hedley Marston and his work with radiation testing of fallout from the atomic bombs exploded at Maralinga.

Previously, Hedley’s CSIRO team discovered cobalt and copper deficiencies in what seemed like healthy pasture. This saved many farmers worldwide from unexplained stock losses on similarly deficient soils. Hedley ruled his department with an iron fist and he took credit for work done by junior officers as a matter of course. He didn’t make too many friends in the process. In October 1955, at the height of the Cold War Hedley Marston received secrecy clearance from ASIO. He began work on radiation experiments involving animals, for the top-secret atomic tests.

His ego drove him to become involved, against his initial hesitance, seeing it as an marvellous opportunity for his own advancement. However during the atomic tests, Hedley Marston became concerned over the claims by Ernest Titterton and the Atomic Safety Committee, that there was “no danger to the public”, believing physicists couldn’t make such judgements. He also conducted air sampling during the tests that contradicted the “official” line that “no radioactive fallout affected the Australian public.

Radiation Experiments

Experiments on ruminant animals showed that radioactive iodine-131, entered the food chain as was shown in tests on sampled thyroids. Worse, Hedley believed that strontium-90 also was being ingested by dairy cattle and was being concentrated (biologically magnified) in cow’s milk. Government policy at the time guaranteed a half pint of milk daily to every school-child. Due to his accusations of lying by the Atomic Safety Committee and the government at the time, Hedley Marston became “persona non grata”. The British demanded the return of testing equipment. The Atomic Safety Committee insisted he stop his criticism. His final report tabled his findings about the fallout of iodine-131. Also the potential for an increase of thyroid cancer due to its ingestion. At the end of the report he predicted that deadly strontium-90 would be also present in the population, especially in children. He predicted that the  strontium-90 would accumulate in the bones of children.

Secret Bone Tests

This sparked a most shameful episode in Australian history. Around the country, pathologists were to remove bones from bodies undergoing autopsy, especially from children. The bones, sent to the eastern states were “ashed” and tested for the presence of strontium-90. This was done under a cloak of secrecy, without the knowledge of next of kin.

The testing did reveal the widespread presence of stontium-90. By August 1958 Hedley managed to publish an edited version of his report, yet mainstream media failed to take up what should have been front page news, Hedley believed, because of government influence. The bone survey, continued for twenty years. Tens of thousands of bone samples collected and stored, all the while in secret.

Around the world, increasing levels of strontium-90 in human bones, and the growing consensus that the human race could be forever damaged by its effects, forced leaders of atomic powers to agree to stop atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. This was in August 1963.

“Whistleblower”, Hedley Marston, whilst vindicated, felt that it was too little and far to late and remained critical of the various people, organisations and goverments that misled and lied to the Australian people.

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