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'Atomic Vets' Death Rates
The following announcement was released yesterday. In reading it, I am
left wondering if treatment of naval personnel for sinus problems using
radium sources (apparently a common occurrance at that time) may have
confounded the nasal cancer results. At any rate, I thought the info
would be of interest to RadSafers.
My own opinions,
Date: Oct. 20, 1999
Contacts: Neil Tickner, Media Relations Officer
Megan O'Neill, Media Relations Assistant
(202) 334-2138; e-mail <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Publication Announcement: Interpretation of 'Atomic Vets' Death Rates
Limited by Challenges Of Conducting Retrospective Epidemiological
Ever since 1976, when a veteran of a 1957 nuclear test in Nevada claimed
that he developed leukemia as a result of his exposure to the radiation,
veterans and their families, scientists, and the public have struggled
to determine if there is a connection between participation in the tests
and adverse health effects. In a new study, one of the largest of its
kind, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academies looked
into the causes and rates of death among the nearly 70,000 soldiers,
sailors, airmen, and marines who participated during the 1950s in at
least one of five groups of atmospheric nuclear tests chosen for
examination. These servicemen were present at tests conducted in the
Nevada desert or in the South Pacific; some 30 percent have since died.
The question that remains is whether some number of deaths may have been
attributable to radiation exposure.
The researchers at the Medical Follow-up Agency of the IOM looked at
whether participants' death rates were higher than those of a comparison
group of nearly 65,000 military personnel serving at the same time but
not involved in the tests. They did not examine differences in nonfatal
disease or injury. The difficulties in doing such a retrospective
epidemiologic study are manifold: Many years have passed since the
tests, and the extent to which each serviceman was exposed is
extraordinarily hard to determine because of the limited amount of
exposure data collected at the time. By beginning with the most
complete lists of participants to date, identifying a comparable group
of servicemen who did not participate in nuclear bomb blasts, and
tracking death certificates through various sources, the researchers
were able to draw this general conclusion: There is no difference
between the two groups in overall death rates or in total deaths from
The researchers also investigated specific causes of death. When looking
at leukemia, participants in the nuclear tests had a 14 percent higher
death rate than those in the comparison group. But the study report
points out that this difference is not statistically significant,
meaning that the results may be due to chance.
Because leukemia was originally singled out as a primary target for
investigation, the researchers also looked at subcategories of
participants. For example, land-based participants-those in the Nevada
desert-had a death rate from leukemia that was 50 percent higher than
military personnel in similar units who did not take part in atomic
tests. Sea-based test participants in the South Pacific, however, did
not differ from their comparison group in leukemia deaths.
The leukemia findings are consistent with those of other studies of
atomic test participants, the study group said. That is, the handful of
other studies conducted have found slightly increased rates of leukemia.
The study report also points out some unanticipated results regarding
two other kinds of cancer-prostate and nasal. Deaths from prostate
cancer were 20 percent higher among test participants than the
comparison group, and even higher for nasal cancer. The prostate cancer
findings have not been consistently seen in other studies of people
exposed to radiation and are therefore difficult to interpret. The nasal
cancer finding is even harder to interpret, in part because this is the
first study of atomic test participants to look specifically for that
cause of death. To date, nasal cancer has not been among the cancers
considered to be caused by radiation.
To improve understanding of the associations observed, researchers would
need a crucial set of missing data-information on the size of the
radiation dose received by each veteran. At the time of the tests, dose
data were not being collected specifically for medical research; dose
measurement and records maintenance was neither complete nor consistent.
In the ensuing decades, the federal government has used the available
information to reconstruct doses-not for research purposes, but to
support veterans' claims for compensation. After a review of available
data, the IOM did not use the dose information, finding it unsuitable
for research of this kind.
This latest report supersedes an IOM report published in 1985. Several
years after completion of the first study, substantial inaccuracies were
discovered in the data provided to the researchers. Not all the veterans
listed as test participants had actually been present at nuclear tests,
while some who were present were omitted. The new study uses corrected
and validated participant lists, as well as an enhanced study design.
The IOM also assembled a volunteer panel of experts in the fields of
biostatistics, epidemiology, radiation effects, and archival sources to
advise the research staff in its work.
The study was funded by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency of the U.S.
Department of Defense. The Institute of Medicine is a private, nonprofit
organization that provides health policy advice under a congressional
charter granted to the National Academy of Sciences.
Copies of The Five Series Study: Mortality of Military Participants in
U.S. Nuclear Weapons Tests will be available from the National Academy
Press in November at the mailing address in the letterhead; tel. (202)
334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy
from the Office of News and Public Information at the letterhead address
(contacts listed above).
INSTITUTE OF MEDICINE Medical Follow-up Agency
Authors of The Five Series Study: Mortality of Military Participants in
U.S. Nuclear Weapons Tests
Susan Thaul, Ph.D. (study director), Epidemiologist
Harriet Crawford, B.S., Operations Director
Heather O'Maonaigh, M.A., Research Associate
William F. Page, Ph.D., Statistician
Susan L. Gawarecki, Ph.D., Executive Director
Oak Ridge Reservation Local Oversight Committee, Inc.
136 South Illinois Avenue, Suite 208
Oak Ridge, Tennessee 37830
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