Germany facing class action suit over radar-linked cancer claims

By Ned Stafford

FRANKFURT, Germany (Reuters Health) – A lawyer representing more than 700 German military personnel who claim to have developed cancer from working on radar systems says he intends to file class actions lawsuits against the German government and the US manufacturers of the systems.

Reiner Geulen, a Berlin-based attorney, told Reuters Health that he believes the German government had tried for years to cover up any connection between the soldiers who developed cancer and their exposure to x-rays while installing, repairing and maintaining radar systems in the late 1950s to around 1980.

He plans to file a class action suit against the Germany Defense Ministry in February, seeking damages of between 75,000 and 500,000 euros per case.

Geulen also said he is convinced the problem in not confined to Germany, but has affected soldiers of many, if not all, nations who are members of NATO. He told Reuters Health that he already represents around 20 former Greek soldiers with cancer and around 30 from the UK. He is also in preliminary contact with former US military personnel who believe their cancer might have been caused from working close to radar equipment.

Geulen made his comments on Tuesday after one of his clients, Peter Rasch, appeared Monday evening on a German television news magazine report. Rasch, a former radar worker with small cell lung cancer, expressed anger that of 1,436 applications filed by members of the former West German military, the Defense Ministry's special representative has thus far determined that only five were the result of radar x-ray exposure.

Rasch accused the special representative, Ulrich Birkenheier, of "doctoring the facts."

In late December, Birkenheier told Reuters Health that the Defense Ministry was actively investigating the cancer claims. However, he noted that 25% of all deaths in Germany are cancer-related, an indication that proving a link between cancer cases and work on radar systems would be difficult.

He said an additional 382 men who had been members of the former East German Army and 400 men who do not fall under Defense Ministry jurisdiction also had filed claims of cancer from radar work. Of the total 1,868 cases under Defense Ministry jurisdiction, nearly 300 have died, mostly from leukemia, lymphatic tumors or testicular cancer.

The x-ray exposure came from repair and maintenance of radar transmitting devices from 1956, when the former West German Army was established, through around 1980, according to Birkenheier. After 1980, changes in radar maintenance were made that ended the chance of harmful x-ray exposure.

Geulen said that he believes the German government started making changes around 1980 to improve safety, such as using lead protection covers when working near the tubes that produce x-rays. However, he noted that there were thousands of radar systems in planes, ships, tanks, missile systems and ground stations, and that he believes the protection from x-rays was not 100% throughout the military until the late 1980s.

Of his 700 clients, about 400 had worked on at least one of two widely used radar systems manufactured by US companies, he said. One of those is the Hawk system, which he said was manufactured by Raytheon Corporation, and the other the Nike system, manufactured by, among others, Western Electric, formerly a part of the Bell System.

Geulen said he is being advised by a paid consultant in New York, who is collecting information on possible radar-related cancer cases in the US and by helping locate a team of lawyers to file a class action suit in a US court.

David Polk, a spokesman for Raytheon Corporation, said he was aware of the radar issue in Germany. However, he declined direct comment.

"I would not be in a position to respond until we see what the suit alleges," he said.

An official in the Defense Ministry, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters Health that all NATO nations had been notified of the radar investigation in Germany, and that all had reported back that they were not aware of any cancer cases related to radar x-ray exposure.

Asked what he thought of the reply from other NATO nations, Geulen said: "I don't believe it. You had these radar systems all over in NATO countries and in the United States."

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