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During the later-half of WWII and during the Cold War, nuclear weapons testing was common within the United States military, and particularly within the United States Navy. While the United States had been successful in developing the first atomic bomb, the extent of which nuclear weapons and power could be used was not yet fully known. Between 1946 and 1958, weapons testing conducted at the Marshall Islands in Micronesia caused not only many of the indigenous islanders to become sick, but also many of the United States Navy personnel who conducted the test as well.
During the testing, there was some supervision over the levels of radiation that personnel were being exposed to. Each sailor was tested frequently to ensure that they had not been exposed to a level of radiation which the scientists thought to be hazardous, even as there was no real precedent for human radiation exposure and thus no basis for what level could be deemed “safe.” It was believed at the time that exposure to anything beyond 0.1 rontgen (R) per day could potentially be unsafe.
Unfortunately, there was no tangible evidence to suggest that any level or radiation was safe to be exposed to. However, the United States Navy recognized that it was possible that nearly anyone who participated in the Marshall Islands could potentially be affected later in life by radiation exposure and because of this they kept track of the health of all those who were present at the time of the testing.
In 1996, the United States government initiated a mortality study of those who participated in the Marshall Islands testing versus a control group of similar-aged non-veterans. The study clearly showed an increase in early death among those who were present during the nuclear testing. What was not clear however, was specifically what disease the radiation exposure was causing. The increase in mortality among veterans was attributed to many malignancies, including lung cancer, leukemia, and brain cancer, rather than an increase in a single cause of death.
Today, many servicemen who were present at not only during the Marshall Islands testing, but also at other nuclear testing facilities could potentially be affected by radiation poisoning. Navy personnel who have known radiation exposure history should communicate this to their physician and discuss possible symptoms.
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