A new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine shows veterans who participated in a U.S. military program during the 1960s, which exposed them to biological and chemical agents, appear to display no significant increase in long-term adverse health outcomes, specific causes of death, or death rates compared with a similar group of veterans who were not involved in the project.
School of Public Health Professor Beth Virnig was a member of the committee of national epidemiology, use of health claims data, occupational exposures, and health outcomes experts which authored the report.
“It was very challenging to assess whether there were long-term chronic health effects of exposures that happened so long ago,” says Virnig. “We were all committed to doing our best to help provide answers for these veterans.”
The report evaluated the long-term health impacts experienced by persons who unknowingly participated in a program, known as Project SHAD (Shipboard Hazard and Defense). Project SHAD took place aboard naval ships from 1963 to 1969 and included approximately 5,900 military personnel, primarily from the Marine Corps and Navy. The goal of the military program was to identify vulnerabilities of naval ships to chemical and biological warfare agents.
In the 1990s, some Project SHAD veterans informed the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) that they were experiencing health problems they suspected could be the result of the testing. As a result, researchers from the VA and Institute of Medicine performed studies, which yielded complex results, including an increase in all-cause mortality among the SHAD veterans.
In response, Congress asked the National Academies for a study on the potential long-term health effects for the SHAD veterans in 2010. The committee used electronic health care data from the Medicare and VA programs to identify whether exposed veterans had different patterns of health care use compared to unexposed veterans.
In addition to finding no increase in adverse health and death issues among Project SHAD veterans, the new study also showed:
- During Project SHAD, personnel were exposed to at least 16 different substances (alone or in combination) over a period of seven years.
- Substances used in the tests include Bacillus globigii, Coxiella burnetii and sarin.
- As of December 31, 2011, approximately 30 percent of both the Project SHAD and the comparison veteran populations had died.
- Circulatory disease was the most common diagnosis among Medicare users in the SHAD and comparison veterans groups.
The committee noted that, given the existence of unavoidable limitations in the availability information, some potential health effects from the SHAD testing cannot unequivocally be ruled out. However, within the limits of the data available to the committee, the results of the analyses provide no evidence that the health of SHAD veterans overall or those in the exposure groups is significantly different from that of similar veterans who did not participate in these tests.