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Attitudes about the process and the candor of VA and DTRA varied. Although expressions of patriotism characterized many of the veterans’ approaches to the dose reconstruction process, there were also those in our sample whose mistrust was demonstrated in remarks they made about the circumstances of their exposure. It is striking, for example, that several veterans alleged that they were used as a “human guinea pig” or a “human monitor” or that they were in an “experiment.” It is not clear that anyone in authority could dissuade veterans of such views, but delays and bureaucracy surely do not lessen such suspicions.
More recent direct communication between veterans and DTRA evinces an improved effort to tailor responses to the veteran’s circumstances. Yet in at least one exchange (case #60), the veteran asked several specific questions concerning bioassay (see Section VI.D), sampling criteria in the comparable U.S. population that did not participate in atomic testing, and the name and address of the agency conducting the sampling, but the response did not address the second and third questions.
Over the years, various attempts have been made to provide veterans with general information on what was being learned about their radiation exposures. For example, a letter from the Navy to a veteran (case #49) includes the following statement, which is found in a number of such letters in the early to middle 1980s: “An important finding to date is that radiation exposures to the participants were generally quite low.” The letter also refers to “the consensus of the medical community” that “the risk of any adverse health effect from exposures such as experienced by nearly all test participants is very, very slight.” It is not clear what “consensus” the letter intended to identify. About a year later, a letter from the NTPR program to another veteran (case #58) reports the conclusions of a 1985 National Research Council report concerning mortality of test participants (NRC, 1985a) and includes a press release of the report. The committee found such generic statements regarding the low incidence of cancer among veterans and low probability of radiation as a causal agent for cancer possibly confusing to laypersons.
Although attempts to provide general information and reassurance on the significance of radiation doses and risks are laudable, the committee finds the way in which scientific views have been used in these communications to be somewhat troubling. Appearing in the context of an individual request for record review, dose reconstruction, and potential compensation for a disease suffered by a veteran, the communications have a defensive quality that is at best unpersuasive for the veteran’s case and at worse an overt attempt to “expert” the veteran into retreat. Veterans and their families may, and apparently often do, regard the source of this information, which is the authority responsible for analyzing radiation exposure, as operating under a conflict of interest.
Letters sent to veterans often were ambiguous in their presentation of the risk and the extent of scientific agreement. A letter sent in 1996 (case #15) stated that