She can't prove it, but Fran Kenneally believes her six miscarriages, pituitary tumor, mild stroke and brittle bones can be linked to nasal radium treatments she received as a child.
"I just despised the treatments," Kenneally said Monday in testimony before a Senate subcommittee investigating the once-common medical treatment, which involved radioactive pellets being placed in the nose.Nasal radium, used in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s to treat hearing loss and other problems, is suspected by some of causing scores of cancers, thyroid and dental problems, immune disorders and other afflictions.
Patient advocates have been pushing for an epidemiological study that might provide a scientific basis for the federal government to alert former patients that they could be at risk of serious illness.
Military divers and aviators received nasal radium to prevent broken eardrums due to sharp changes in air pressure. The treatment was used in civilian practice for hearing loss, colds and other ailments. Kenneally, of Waterford, Conn., received nasal radium as a child for adenoid problems.
The radium, which was encased in capsules and inserted into nostrils, was intended to shrink tissues near the Eustachian tubes.
Stewart Farber of Pawtucket, R.I., a public-health scientist who has researched the issue, said radium treatments delivered much higher doses of radiation to many more people than the government's human radiation experiments during the Cold War.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., who chaired the hearings Monday by a Senate Environment and Public Works subcommittee, called the treatment "atomic age bloodletting, with the cure worse than the disease."
"We can help the many thousands of people who got this treatment by getting them to see their doctors so that any problems can be detected early," said James Garrity of Quincy, Mass., who received radium in 1966 as a young submariner training in New London, Conn.
Garrity, who has nasopharyngeal cancer, this year started Submarine Survivors Group to collect data on radium treatments.
More than 54,000 former patients and their relatives have contacted the group, and the Department of Veterans Affairs is examining some of the data to determine whether an epidemiological study is feasible.
Farber believes hundreds of thousands of people may have been treated before the practice fell out of use.
Navy and Air Force officials testified that they would cooperate with the veterans' department.