Thousands concerned about radium treatments

By The Associated Press
BALTIMORE - Thousands of military officials who suffered ear troubles during World War II received nasal radium treatments, and may be at 10 times higher risk of developing cancer.

Staff at the Department of Veterans Affairs are sifting through old files and stacks of boxes looking for names of thousands of submariners and pilots who received the treatments.

But no one has stepped forward to try and warn as many as 2 million civilians who received the same treatments for ear infections.

``If they are notifying the military people, I am still 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 the treatments. ``All my life, I wondered about those treatments. I never got an answer.''

The treatment was pioneered by Johns Hopkins Hospital 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, through the mid 1960s.

The Department of Veterans Affairs recently proposed legislation that would qualify those treated for priority medical care. But those civilians treated as children have no such recourse.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Johns Hopkins Hospital officials say people who received the treatments should tell their doctors.

But the paper trail is nearly nonexistent. 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 the treatments in private offices are dead.

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.

In the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s, radiation was being used to treat medical conditions ranging from acne and birthmarks to cancer and gastrointestinal problems. 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 that grounded pilots and beached submarines.

As early as 1948, there were indications of problems, with studies published about blood vessels lesions and thyroid cancer. Still, the nasal radium treatments were embraced.

Eventually, antibiotics and ear tubes took the place of the treatments. By 1977, the National Institutes of Health published a brochure warning physicians of the increased risk of cancer.

Virginia Blatchley said she just wished she knew that the treatments she received as a child for respiratory infections increased her risk.

Several years ago, the 58-year-old Easton woman noticed a lesion on her tongue, but dismissed it as an ulcer for about four months. Eventually, she was diagnosed with cancer of the tongue.

``If I had read of a risk, or been warned,'' said Blatchley, ``I would have been more aware and not allowed that lesion to go on and on for as long as I did.''