Thousands of GIs said to get radium treatments, starting in '40s

January 13, 1994|By Newsday

WASHINGTON -- Thousands of military personnel, including perhaps 5,000 submariners, received radium treatments for middle ear problems in the 1940s and beyond, and should be studied for possible long-term effects of the radiation, say researchers.

The radium treatments involve the largest group of veterans exposed to radiation other than those who served near atomic bomb tests, Dr. Alan Ducatman, an environmental health specialist at the West Virginia University Medical School, said yesterday.

Dr. Ducatman said he found "no evidence that anything even remotely resembling modern informed consent" was given to the bTC trainees who received the treatments routinely throughout the 1950s.

Dr. Ducatman and Stewart Farber, a public health specialist from Pawtucket, R.I., discussed the radium treatments in a letter in 1992 to the New England Journal of Medicine. They cited a research study on the use of radium in 1946 on 732 of 6,149 trainees at the Navy's submarine school in New London, Conn.

The procedure consisted of inserting radium-containing tubes up through the nostrils to shrink tissue at the opening of the Eustachian tubes that lead to the middle ear. The intent was to prevent the ear pain and balance problems that can result from pressure changes during underwater escape tests.

Dr. Ducatman said radium also was used on U.S. military pilots to help them cope with atmospheric pressure changes during flight.

Unlike some of the radiation experiments that have drawn public attention in recent weeks, the procedures were intended to provide a medical benefit. And nasal radium treatments also were used widely in civilian medical practice at the time to shrink chronically swollen adenoids in children.

But Mr. Farber and Dr. Ducatman said the radium treatments also may have exposed the military personnel unwittingly to a higher risk of head and neck cancers.

The scientific data are inadequate to judge the long-term effects of the radium treatments, Dr. Ducatman said, although one 1982 study of 904 children treated with radium between 1943 and 1960 in Washington County, Md., found that four had died of malignant head and neck tumors while no such tumors were found in a comparable untreated group of children.

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