Background: During the Cold War the United States (U.S.) conducted 230 above-ground atmospheric nuclear weapons tests between 1945 and 1962 at the Nevada Test Site and the Pacific Proving Grounds. These tests involved over 250,000 military personnel. Asbestos was used on the naval vessels for insulation in the boiler room, engine room, and other areas. 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, developed using historical records provided by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. 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 Pacific Proving Ground (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: Although jobs with high potential for exposure to asbestos products were held by only 20% of the enlisted naval population, sailors with these jobs (machinist's mate, pipe fitter, boiler technician, water tender and fireman) experienced 55% of mesothelioma deaths. The significantly higher mortality rate overall was explained by asbestos exposure among enlisted naval personnel in this low-dose radiation exposed cohort.
Keywords: Pacific Proving Grounds; asbestos; atomic veterans; mesothelioma; nuclear weapons tests.