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Date: May 6, 1999
Contacts: Dan Quinn, Media Relations Officer
Dumi Ndlovu, Media Relations Assistant
(202) 334-2138; e-mail <>


Publication Announcement

Radiation Threats in Post-Cold War Era
Bring New Strategy for Protecting Troops

Although the threat of global nuclear war diminished with the end of the Cold War, the U.S. military still must protect its troops from radiation. Now, however, military planners are preparing for more-limited exposure that could occur during either hostile or peacekeeping operations. These exposures may result from small-scale nuclear exchanges, terrorist actions, the use of radioactive materials in conventional explosives, or nuclear power plant accidents where the military would be called in to help. While not likely to cause immediate health problems, these exposures could increase the risk of leukemia and certain cancers later in life.

In response to a request from the U.S. Army surgeon general, a committee of the Institute of Medicine has examined a 1996 directive that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) issued at the time troops went to Bosnia. NATO guidelines are a good starting point, the report says, but the U.S. Army is correct to plan additional measures to protect its troops. The report provides the Army with guidance on ethical issues, including training, record-keeping and notification, commander decision-making, and follow-up on the health of exposed soldiers.

The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) should enhance its training of military commanders in how to consider long-term health effects when making operational decisions that may result in the exposure of troops to radiation, the report says. Commanders should be given information to use in weighing potential radiation-related risks against potential risks from alternative actions.

In addition, DOD should provide general and mission-specific training to all soldiers and inform them of actual or suspected radiation exposure, the report says. In non-emergency situations, these soldiers should receive the same level of training and protection given to civilians who work with nuclear materials. DOD should adopt plans for protecting its personnel that are based on the widely accepted standards developed by the International Commission on Radiological Protection.

In emergency or wartime situations in which advance planning and adherence to dose limits may not be possible, commanders would need to determine that the benefits of a given mission outweigh the potential harm to soldiers. Radiation is one of many potential dangers that soldiers face, and should be evaluated along with the other risks in a balanced fashion that neither minimizes nor exaggerates it, the report says.

To aid in decisions about military missions, as well as long-term follow-up, DOD should implement a system to measure internal as well as external radiation doses of all soldiers. In situations involving an elevated risk of radiation exposure, troops need to be outfitted with individual detection devices that would give them an accurate reading of radiation dose. Information about the amount of exposure received should be kept as part of all soldiers' permanent records, following them as they switch units or change assignments. Records should be kept secure, and given to soldiers annually and when they leave the service, even for those whose exposures are zero. These accurate exposure histories could be useful when making future health decisions, whether through the Department of Veterans Affairs or other sources of care.

Radiation is not a new hazard for military personnel. More than 200,000 service members participated in U.S. testing of nuclear weapons between 1945 and 1963, and numerous laws passed in the last two decades attempt to provide just consideration of claims for compensation for health problems that some atomic test participants attribute to radiation exposure. The committee's report acknowledges the difficulties encountered in resolving these veterans' claims that are due, in part, to inadequate exposure records. Its report does not address past exposures, however, and focuses instead on the military needs of the future.

Given the limitations of current screening tests for cancers and leukemia, the report says, it would not be useful for health officials to actively test individuals for the kinds of cancers that might be associated with radiation exposure. But if cancer screening methods improve, such testing may be useful in the future. The maintenance of exposure records would allow the identification of individuals who might benefit, as well as provide information to use in registries and other population follow-up activities.

A committee roster follows. The Institute of Medicine is a private, non-profit organization that provides health policy advice under a congressional charter granted to the National Academy of Sciences. The study was funded by the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command.

Read the full text of Potential Radiation Exposure in Military Operations: Protecting the Soldier Before, During, and After for free on the Web, as well as more than 1,800 other publications from the National Academies. Printed copies are available for purchase from the National Academy Press Web site or at the mailing address in the letterhead; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information at the letterhead address (contacts listed above).

Medical Follow-up Agency

Committee on Battlefield Radiation Exposure Criteria