Asbestos exposure and mesothelioma mortality among atomic veterans

Int J Radiat Biol. 2022;98(4):781-785. doi: 10.1080/09553002.2018.1551641. Epub 2019 Jan 8.


Background: The United States (U.S.) conducted 230 above-ground atmospheric nuclear weapons tests between 1945 and 1962 involving over 250,000 military personnel. This is the first quantitative assessment of asbestos-related mesothelioma, including cancers of the pleura and peritoneum, among military personnel who participated in above-ground nuclear weapons testing.

Methods: Approximately 114,000 atomic veterans were selected for an epidemiological study because they were in one of eight series of weapons tests that were associated with somewhat higher personnel exposures than the other tests and because they have been previously studied. We were able to categorize specific jobs into potential for asbestos exposure based on a detailed database of the military activities of the atomic veterans. Standardized mortality ratios (SMR) were calculated by service, rank (officer/enlisted) and ratings (occupation code and work location aboard ship) after 65 years of follow-up.

Results: Mesothelioma deaths were significantly increased overall (SMR 1.56; 95% CI 1.32-1.82; n = 153). This increase was seen only among those serving in the PPG (SMR 1.97; 95% CI 1.65-2.34; n = 134), enlisted men (SMR 1.81; 95% CI 1.53-2.13; n = 145), and the 70,309 navy personnel (SMR 2.15; 95% CI 1.80-2.56; n = 130). No increased mortality rates were seen among the other services: army (SMR 0.45), air force (SMR 0.85), or marines (SMR 0.75). Job categories with the highest potential for asbestos exposure (machinist's mates, boiler technicians, water tender, pipe fitters, and fireman) had an of SMR 6.47. Job categories with lower potential (SMR =1.35) or no potential (SMR =1.28) for asbestos exposure had non-significantly elevated mesothelioma mortality.

Conclusions: The large excess of mesothelioma deaths seen among atomic veterans was explained by asbestos exposure among enlisted naval personnel. The sources of exposure were determined to be on navy ships in areas (or with materials) with known asbestos content. No excess of mesothelioma was observed in other services or among naval personnel with minimal exposure to asbestos in this low-dose radiation exposed cohort.

Keywords: Atomic veterans; Pacific Proving Grounds; asbestos; mesothelioma; nuclear weapons tests.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Asbestos* / adverse effects
  • Cohort Studies
  • Humans
  • Lung Neoplasms* / etiology
  • Male
  • Mesothelioma* / complications
  • Occupational Diseases* / etiology
  • Occupational Exposure* / adverse effects
  • Veterans*


  • Asbestos