Thousands of U.S. servicemen who were given nasal radiation treatment decades ago by military doctors may be at risk for further health problems, the Defense Department said Wednesday.
The Pentagon said it is working with the Department of Veterans Affairs to identify and notify servicemen who participated in the radiation treatments. It made no mention of the untold numbers of children of military personnel given similar treatments with radiation for innerear problems in the 1940s and 50s.
In a lengthy report on a wide range of military radiation research involving human subjects during the Cold War, the Pentagon said only the nasal radiation treatments posed health questions that required medical follow-up.
The Pentagon is not admitting that the radiation caused any health problems among servicemen. In fact it continues to point to studies that say evidence of long-term health problems associated with this treatment are inconclusive. It now acknowledges, however, a “significant risk” of such linkages.
Other projects among more than 2,300 radiation studies and experiments documented in the Pentagon report included the use of Mennonite conscientious objectors in experimental taste tests of irradiated foods in 1956. Also, Alaska Eskimos were given radioactive iodine-131 in an Air Force study of thyroid activity in men exposed to cold in the 1950s. The government is now negotiating compensation for some of the Alaska natives.
Stewart Farber, a public health scientist who has pressed the government for years on the nasal radiation treatments, said the Pentagon report, by dealing only with servicemen, ignores a bigger population of civilians who got the treatment.
“They want to make it look like they’re doing something, when in reality they’re not helping people,” said Farber, who is associated with the advocacy group Center for Atomic Radiation Studies Inc., of Brookline, Mass.
The Pentagon report said the number of servicemen involved was in the thousands. Available records do not identify most by name, so it is unclear how many eventually will be alerted and given medical examinations.
Most apparently were Navy submariners and Army pilots. They were particularly vulnerable to inner-ear problems from exposure to rapid pressure changes.
Marvin Baumstein was a 27-year-old Army Air Force gunner when he was given a series of radium treatments through his nostrils in 1945 to shrink his adenoids and cure a temporary hearing loss from a B-24 bomber training flight.
It worked, Baumstein said in an interview Wednesday, but he later developed cancer of the larynx. He was a cigarette smoker but he believes the radium treatment caused his cancer.
“I would like my kids to know the Army was responsible,” he said in the barely audible voice of a man who had half of his larynx removed.
In the 1940s and ‘50s, it was common practice in civilian and military medicine to use radium to treat sinus inflammations and to shrink swollen adenoids.
Typically, a rod containing 50 milligrams of radium was pushed through each nostril and placed against the opening of the eustachian tubes for six to 12 minutes. Repeated over a period of months, this would shrink the adenoids. The eustachian tubes help the ear to drain and balance pressure on the inner and outer ear.
The military stopped using the treatment when pressurized aircraft cabins came into use and new medical treatments were developed, such as antibiotics and tympanic tubes.
In a February 1995 letter to a woman who was given the radium treatment by military doctors as a child in the early 1950s, the Defense Department said the practice was stopped in the 1960s in part because of “a growing concern that the radium treatments might be associated with increased future health risk.” It assured her the government was still studying the long-term health risks.
The Pentagon said the Department of Veterans Affairs will contact veterans whose military files show they received the radiation treatment. They will be advised to tell their doctor of the past treatment “so it may be considered when they receive medical examinations,” the Pentagon said.
The Army Air Force used radium treatments on an unspecified number of airmen whose inner-ear problems kept them from flying. The Navy used it on submarine crewmen with ear-pressure problems, including 732 men involved in a 1940s study by researchers at the Submarine Medical Research Laboratory in New London, Conn.