A Pentagon task force is recommending that government doctors re-examine 44 persons who received [WORD ILLEGIBLE] than permissible doses of radiation during nuclear weapons tests in Nevada in 1957.
The 44 were examined at the time [WORD ILLEGIBLE] found healthy, Army sources say, that they have not been checked since. Some were exposed to 10 rads, officials say - radiation doses twice the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] maximum the government permits.
The long-term health effects of low-level radiation have been a source of concern in the recent debate over planned U.S. production of enhanced-radiation neutron weapons.
At a distance of a mile or more, those weapons give off low-level radiation, similar to that from weapons tested in the 1950s.
Four ex-servicemen who have leukemia have claimed their exposure to radiation during a 1957 test called Smokey was the cause of their disease.
It was also learned yesterday that three onetime civilian employees at the Nevada nuclear test site, who got low-level radiation when a 1970 underground test shot broke through the earth's surface died of leukemia between 1974 and June of this year.
The widows of two of the three are suing the Energy Research and Development Administration, which operates the test site, blaming their husbands' deaths on the radiation received from the explosion.
Pentagon doctors and ERDA officials say the low doses received by the soldiers at Smokey and the civilians at the underground shot were not the causes of their leukemia.
Under safety standards existing in 1957 and still in effect, an individual can receive five rads per year or three rads in any three-month period. The standards also permit a one-time 25-rad dose if the individual is never to work again in a high-radiation environment.
Some doctors and scientists disagree with those standards, in part because they are based on limited amounts of information gained from past exposures of humans to radiation. Studies of the victims of the 1945 Hiroshima and Nagasaki bomb blasts, and of the 1954 fallout on some 246 Marshall Islanders provide the bulk of data.
The Pentagon task force also is recommending examinations by given all ex-servicemen who write in saying they were involved in tests and desire medical followup.
At present, the Public Health Service's Center for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta is conducting the only organized survey of participants in a past nuclear test that involved troops.
CDC doctors are trying to track down some 1,100 soldiers and 1,000 civilains who took part in Smokey, where on August 31, 1957, GIs maneuvered in the vicinity of ground zero within hours after the explosion of a 44-kiloton device. The weapon was far more powerful than the 1945 Hiroshima bomb.
One purpose of the troop exercise, according to a 1957 Army report, was to puclicize the role of the solider in the age of atomic warfare. A 30-minute television program was made from film shot by Army camermen at the test and sent to more than 300 television stations around the country.
Since the CDC study of Smokey was publicized in June, thousands of letters from servicemen and their wives have been received by the CDC doctors in Atlanta.
Of the first 250 men the CDC studied, four leukemia cases were discovered. Two were certain Smokey participants and two others are still being checked.
According to the CDC's Dr. Glyn G. Calwell, director of the study, if he finds from seven to ten cases in the exercise's 2,235 participants, "it will be significant" in raising questions about the long-term effects of previously considered safe radiation levels.
Film badges from Smokey participants showed radiation levels, mostly below two rads, according to an Army source. The badges, however, did not record inhaled dust that could have been irradiated.
The lawsuits arising out of the 1970 underground test will provide another arena for the controversy over low-dose radiation.
The underground shot, called Baneberry, was set off at 7:30 a.m. Dec. 18, 1970, 910 feet below the earth's surface. Despite that depth, it broke through the ground and sent a radio-active cloud almost 10,000 feet into the air.
Part of the radioactive debris drifted over a test site, workers' camp, 3 1/2 miles from ground zero, containing some 900 people.
Guards were brought to the camp within a half-hour of the shot and supervised evacuation to a more distant location. Eighty-six persons who showed radiation effects were sent to a health facility for decontamination and examination.
One guard, Harley Roberts, who received some radiation during the evacuation, was sent to another post rather than to the decontamination area. Later in the afternoon Robert's was examined and ordered to take showers to wash off radiation that had adhered to him.
Eighteen months afterward Roberts showed signs of disease which turned out to be leukemia. He died in April, 1974, and his widow has sued the government.
In a deposition in the case, Dr. Shields Warren, a Harvard pathologist long associated with radiation effects, said that death came because Roberts received a 15-rad dose that altered the makeup of his cell structure.
Arguing for the government, Dr. C. C. Lushbaugh from Oak Ridge, Tenn., said Roberts received less than five rads to his thyroid, not enough to bring on leukemia. Roberts' leukemia, Lushbaugh found, was coincidental with his exposure, not caused by it.
Another victim of the Baneberry radiation, William Nunamaker, an employee for a test subcontractor, died of leukemia in December, 1974. The government says that although he was one of the 86 who needed decontamination, he received less radiation than Roberts.
The third Baneberry victim, according to Mrs. Roberts' lawyer died of leukemia in June.
The Baneberry case makes the first time the long-standing medical dispute on effects of low-level radiation will be argued in a court of law.