MAKE A COMMITMENT
(An editorilll in the New Wndon Day of 11 Feb. 1990]
The Navy says it has done enough. The Navy is wrong. The Navy says its Yale University study of submariners’ health shows there is no additional risk from serving on submarines. The Navy says there’s no need for further study.
Why is the Navy so reluctant to update, improve and expand on a Yale University study designed to measure cancer, heart disease and respiratory illnesses?
New studies released by the National Research Council in 1989 have shown that the danger of getting cancer from lowlevel radiation may be four times as great as previously estimated.
Surely a cost of $3 million, $5 million, even $10 million is a small price to pay for a health study when measured against the enormous investment the Navy has made in building the best submarines in the world and staffing them with the most technically competent, intelligent people it can find.
To put that submarine force at sea, the Navy invests billions of dollars in submarines, as much as S 1 billion per boat, and annually spends hundreds of millions in payroll, training and transportation.
No submariner should go to sea without the knowledge the Navy cares for its servicemen enough to continue regular testing of the health of submariners present and past.
Scientific studies have proven that exposure to asbestos, such as that installed in submarines in the past has caused respiratory, cancer and other major health problems. The Yale study done by the Navy simply did not work with a period long enough in the servicemen’s lives to gauge the development of cancer.
The Yale study, measuring a group of navy men whose health was substantially better than that of the overall U.S. population, found slightly higher cancer rates among submariners. Given that finding, the Navy should invest in tracking earlier nuclear submariners and examining their health status.
When the Navy’s nuclear propulsion program was established and the Nautilus was launched. the Navy fully understood the potential benefits and the risks of its historymaking venture.
The Navy has always preached that safety is the numberone consideration in its nuclear submarine program. Why, then, were medical histories of nuclear submariners not tracked from the inception of their training throughout their lives?
Why, in the words of Capt. James Bush, a submarine veteran who has recovered from cancer. does the Navy have to go to the Veterans Administration and Social Security Administration to find out which members of its “elite” force have died and from what cause?
Submariners’ service to this country is extraordinary. For that service, the nation owes them a great deal of appreciation. But the nation owes them more. It owes them a commitment to assuring that the duty aboard submarines is performed in as healthy an environment as possible.
That is why the Navy’s recalcitrance at expanding its exploration into the health of its submarine force is difficult to comprehend. It is in the Navy’s own long-range interest to promote the safety and health of its submariners.
More than that, the Navy has a moral obligation to the families of its submariners to monitor the health of its most effective force.
A LETTER TO THE EDITOR OF THE DAY
[From Vice Admiral Daniel L. Cooper, USN Assistant Chief of Naval Operations for Submarine Warfare]
The Day’s editorial (“Make a Commitment”, Feb 11. 1990) implies that the Navy is not committed to the occupational health and the long-term well-being of its submariners. The Day is wrong. Since Navy people in the New London area read your paper, this letter is sent to publicly respond and to set the record straight.
The Navy made a commitment to the health of its nuclear submariners long ago. Since the early 1960’s, the U.S. Naval Medical Command has maintained an ongoing interest in the health of the nuclear submarine population. Over the last 25 years, numerous studies have been conducted on various aspects of submariner health. Most of the early studies were conducted by the Naval Submarine Medical Research Laboratory, Groton, Connecticut, or in collaboration with a college or university. These studies have proven valuable, for example, in refining submarine atmosphere control systems. None of these studies has ever identified a significant adverse health impact from nuclear submarine duty.
The Yale study, challenged in The Day’s recent series of articles and in your editorial, was an extension of an existing Navy Study begun in 1967. Initially, the Navy concentrated on active duty submariners and catalogued the incidence of sickness, injury or disease in this group and found no unusual excesses.
In 1979, the Navy decided to extend the scope of this study to include long.term follow·up of submarine personnel who had been discharged, to determine whether such personnel were suffering from any unusual incidence of conditions such as cancer, heart disease, or respiratory disease. The Navy contracted with Yale University to perform such a study. Dr. A M. Ostfeld, a nationally·recognized physician and epidemiologist, headed the study group.
The objective of the Yale study was to determine whether the enclosed environment of submarines has had any impact on the health of these personnel; whether there is any increased mortality associated with service in nuclear submarines; specifically, whether there are risks associated with exposure to the low-level gaseous contaminants or external exposures associated with certain occupations among the crew.
It searched for both acute and chronic affects. The analysis took over four years and the preparation of the report took three years. At no time was the group under any direction or pressure to produce “desirable” results. In April 1987, Dr. Ostfeld submitted his final report.
The study concluded that submarine duty has not adversely affected the health of crew members. This observation is based on comparison of death rates, among the approximately 86,000 officers and enlisted submariners studied, against the national average.
The observed cancer rate was not statistically greater than the age-adjusted national average. In fact, fewer deaths from cancer were observed in the submarine population than expected. Overall, the combined active and discharged submarine population is a healthier population than their civilian counterparts and this trend continues after discharge from the Navy. Fmally, the Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery reviewed the Yale study and found that there is no basis for a health concern.
The Navy’s commitment to the occupational health of its submariners did not begin with the Yale study, nor does it end there. The Day’s editorial assertion that “11te Navy says there’s no need for further study” is incorrect. Since the completion of the Yale study, the Navy has not stopped monitoring the health of our submariners, nor has it stopped looking for ways to ensure that our submariners serve in a safe environment and ways to reduce any potential health or safety risk, however small. The Day’s editorial incorrectly implies otherwise.
The Navy is a responsible organization, manned by responsible people. If the results of the Yale study were at all questionable, the Navy would act to resolve the concerns. However, the results of the Yale study were not questionable. Nothing is more important in the Navy than our people and the families who support them. While The Day appears to share the Navy’s long-standing concern for the health of Navy people, The Day does not appear to understand much about the many existing programs and safeguards which are in place to ensure the health and safety of our people who go to sea.
The Navy’s commitment to the occupational health of its people can be measured by the rigid standards under which our people and our submarines operate. The Navy’s exacting standards for medical and environmental monitoring, atmospheric purification, nuclear propulsion plant certifications, submarine operations and inspections, and for individual training and qualification ensure that our submariners are able to go to sea safely. Our Navy professionals deserve — and receive — our fullest commitment.
The Day’s editorial position that the Navy has failed to fulfill its “moral obligation to the families of its submariners” is unjustified and disingenuous. The Navy’s long-standing and continuing commitment to the health of its submariners, the key facts of the Navy (Yale) study on submarine health, and the Navy’s exacting standards which have produced an outstanding submarine safely record indicate otherwise. The Day is wrong.