1 September 2010
Members of the New Zealand Defence Force who served in Timor-Leste are the first group to have electronic health files recorded for possible exposure to environmental hazards.
Director Defence Health, Dr Alison Drewry, says just about all modern battlefield environments contain risks from a range of chemical and environmental hazards.
The Defence Force is now able to record these potential hazard exposures in their electronic health records system, meaning there will be an easier and better way for personnel to link any future health concerns and their service. The first hazard to be recorded in this manner relates to potential exposure to environmental asbestos in Timor-Leste.
“This potential exposure came from building materials used in the local construction industry in Timor-Leste,” says Dr Drewry. “The risk from this potential exposure has been assessed as ‘low’, though the actual risk to individuals cannot be quantified.
“Health effects from asbestos exposure are usually the result of prolonged exposure and our people’s exposure was for relatively short period – that is, weeks or months not years.
“Risk identification has also been based on samples taken from buildings which shows the asbestos present being predominantly ‘white’ (or Chrysotile asbestos) which is its least dangerous form. However, when this material is crushed it can form fine airborne particles. Activities undertaken by Defence Force people in these environments, including cleaning up debris, or even sleeping in disused buildings, may have potentially exposed them to dust containing asbestos.
“It is impossible to determine the actual individual health risks as there is no reliable quantifiable data from Timor-Leste. An assessment made by the Defence Force has simply concluded that our people have potentially been exposed to asbestos levels greater than would be found in their normal everyday environment in New Zealand.
“As a precautionary approach the Defence Force is recording the service in Timor-Leste on its health record system and advising current and former personnel who deployed about the potential exposure,” says Dr Drewry.
“In future, the same system will be used to identify, monitor and offer assistance to personnel with potential exposure to other hazardous substances while serving with the New Zealand Defence Force.”
Personnel who served in Timor-Leste and their families who would like more information can visit an information section on the Defence Force website: http://nzdf.mil.nz/TLenviro.
The site answers questions about asbestos, and outlines how this issue is being managed and where people can access further health information if they have any concerns.
Contact: Chris Wright, Defence Communications Group (04) 496 0296 or 021 487 980