The News-Times

Regional News

August 19, 1996

Log Discovery Gives Radium Patients New Hope


Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - The discovery of a long-missing naval research log at a Connecticut submarine base has revived hope that the federal government will reverse course and help people who had radioactive pellets placed in their nostrils decades ago.

``It gives the whole issue the credibility it deserves,'' said Stewart Farber, a Pawtucket, R.I., public health scientist who has spent years studying the use of nasopharyngeal radium. He began a project to identify and help former patients.

Nasal radium was given to fliers and military divers, including submariners trained in Groton, Conn., during and after World War II to prevent ear problems related to drastic changes in pressure.

Doctors also gave radium to civilians to cure hearing loss, colds, adenoid troubles and other ailments. Some have questioned whether radium caused their tumors, endocrine and auto-immune disorders, miscarriages, brittle teeth and other health problems.

The radium, encased in capsules and inserted into nostrils at the end of long sticks, was intended to shrink tissues near the Eustachian tubes. The treatment was developed at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore to treat children for hearing loss.

Farber has been highly critical of the federal government's response to date on nasal radium, which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimated was given to as many as 2.5 million people from the 1940s into the 60s.

``Over the past 20 years, the government and medical bureaucracies that are supposedly responsible for responding to radiation risks related to (nasal radium irradiation) have managed to ignore, distort or actively suppress information on this subject,'' Farber wrote in an Aug. 12 letter to Defense Secretary William Perry.

Although old medical journals, and even a 1994 Navy document, indicate that the military employed radium in human research, military officials have consistently said the treatment was standard clinical practice, not experimental.

Last year, the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments, in its recommendations to the Clinton administration, referred to nasopharyngeal radium treatments as experiments. However, it concluded that little medical benefit would come from notifying former patients of possible adverse health effects.

Now, the discovery of the log, which names 1,611 experimental subjects and was uncovered in the back of a laboratory file cabinet in April, offers the most conclusive proof to date that the military conducted radium experiments on its own personnel.

``It's very significant,'' said Bryan Whitman, a U.S. Department of Defense spokesman. Still, no decision has been made on how to proceed.

``It's still premature to talk about specific courses of action that DOD is going to take,'' he said. ``We're still examining the book.''

The Defense Department started asking the Navy for records two years ago, but the log book remained undiscovered until a secretary pulled it out of the back of a file cabinet during a spring inventory, said Capt. Robert Walter, commander of the Naval Submarine Medical Research Laboratory in Groton.

``It's just very, very innocuous,'' he said. ``When we did our first records search, it should have come to light in 1994. It was not discovered at that time. When we found it, we reported it.''

Advocates such as Farber hope the new evidence will finally prompt the federal government to begin an epidemiological study of nasal radium's health effects, possibly leading to notification of former patients and follow-up medical care.

One possibility is that the Clinton administration will come up with a stronger recommendation for the nasal radium patients than did the advisory committee. The Pentagon, the Department of Veterans Affairs and other agencies are currently drafting a response to the entire issue of human radiation experimentation.

Editor's Note: Farber's Radium Experiment Assessment Project can be reached at (203) 367-0791.

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