Old cure, new ills Millions received nasal radium therapy in 1940s, '50s and '60s

Higher cancer risk studied

VA seeks to warn vets, but more civilians underwent treatments

October 12, 1997|By Diana K. Sugg | Diana K. Sugg,SUN STAFF

Sifting through old files and stacks of boxes, staffers from the Department of Veterans Affairs are trying to track down thousands of submariners and pilots who received radiation treatment for ear troubles during World War II. The government wants to tell them they may be at increased risk of cancer.

But no one has stepped forward to do the same for civilians who got the treatment as children, even though their risk from the radiation is as much as 10 times higher -- and they may number as many as 2 million.

"If they are notifying the military people, I am still a part of the citizenry, just like they are. I pay taxes just like they do. They have an obligation to let us know, too," said Bass Bullock, 58, one of roughly 67,000 Marylanders who underwent nasal radium treatments as children. "All my life, I wondered about those treatments. I never got an answer."

The treatment, called nasopharyngeal irradiation, was pioneered by Johns Hopkins physicians. They threaded radium-tipped probes up through the nostrils to shrink swollen lymphoid tissue at the back of the nose. Doctors prescribed the therapy to treat hearing loss, tonsillitis, allergies and even colds. Its use faded by the mid-1960s, but the debate over its risk continues today.

The federal government decided this spring to notify veterans, and the Department of Veterans Affairs recently proposed legislation that would qualify those treated for priority medical care. But unlike veterans, who have a federal agency as an advocate, those civilians treated as children are adrift.

Officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Johns Hopkins Hospital say people who were treated should tell their physicians. But without good records, the institutions say, they can't notify people, and without a large study showing some danger, officials say, it's not necessary anyway. Most records of a Hopkins experiment in nasal radium therapy on 582 Baltimore third-graders in 1948 are lost. The public clinics where thousands of other Maryland schoolchildren were treated are closed. Physicians who administered nasal radium treatments in private offices are dead.

Now, those treated as children just want to know. Are they in danger?

Fears, regrets

At the time, they were elementary schoolchildren with stuffy noses and earaches. Their parents and principals told them they needed the treatment. But they have carried doubts and worries for decades. In recent years, some have reported nasopharynx or tongue cancers, or conditions linked to the pituitary or thyroid gland. One Baltimore woman is haunted, wondering if a warning might have saved her son.

"I had confidence in the nasal radium treatment because I had confidence in the doctor, and I'm sure he was confident in it because it came from Hopkins," said Eleanore DiPietro, a registered nurse. The Catonsville woman's son, Victor, died at 31 in 1991 from a malignant tumor that started inside his cheek and spread to his eye and other organs. The oncologist told her the radiation was most likely to blame.

"If we had known about the risk," DiPietro said quietly, "we would have had regular scans or blood work, and maybe picked it up sooner."

State Sen. David Craig, a Harford County Republican who had the treatment as a 6-year-old, is now investigating the issue and said he may put together a task force.

"If we have more than 50,000 people of my age group that have had this done, we need to look into that as a potential cause of cancer now and not wait," said Craig, 48, a member of the health subcommittee of the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee. His sister also had the treatment. "With Maryland having one of the highest cancer rates, I think it's incumbent upon us to examine everything that may be a factor in that."

Radiation commonplace

In the boom of radiation treatments in the 1940s, '50s and early '60s, nasal radiation rivaled any in its scope, reaching civilians and military personnel in at least 10 states and Europe. Considered a better alternative to invasive surgery, the treatment shrunk swollen lymphoid tissue and improved hearing, early research showed.

At the time, radiation had been tapped to treat medical conditions ranging from acne and birthmarks to cancer and gastrointestinal problems. Babies with enlarged thymus glands underwent radiation treatment, because physicians believed they were more susceptible to frequent colds. Shoe stores even used an X-ray device to allow people to see whether their feet fit properly inside shoes.

For the military, nasal radiation was a solution to the chronic ear problems -- from colds and air-pressure changes -- that grounded pilots and beached submariners.

For many families like the Shaffers in Pennsylvania, nasal radium treatments seemed a miracle. Regina Shaffer's daughter Luan had her tonsils and adenoids removed, but ear infections kept cropping up. She cried at all hours of the night and missed school. She couldn't hear well and began to mispronounce words.

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