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Army: War fighters not exposed to harmful radiation

Nov. 30, 2007 - 11:16AM   |   Last Updated: Nov. 30, 2007 - 11:16AM  |  
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Soldiers who served at a nuclear research center in Baghdad, Iraq, were not exposed to harmful levels of radiation, Army officials said during town hall meetings at Fort Campbell, Ky., to address concerns from soldiers and their families.

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Soldiers who served at a nuclear research center in Baghdad, Iraq, were not exposed to harmful levels of radiation, Army officials said during town hall meetings at Fort Campbell, Ky., to address concerns from soldiers and their families.

Since 2003, more than 750 soldiers have been monitored for exposure to radiation at the Tuwaitha Nuclear Research Center, a 23,000-acre site about 12 miles south of Baghdad. About 75 percent of those soldiers had no measurable radiation exposure, said Col. Mark Melanson, chief of radiation safety at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and team leader of the Army Radiological Advisory Medical Team.

For those who received measurable levels of radiation, their levels of exposure were safe and well within U.S. safety standards, he said.

Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell were among the soldiers who served at the nuclear facility in 2005 and 2006. The Army scheduled the meetings for soldiers and families after a former soldier in mid-August sent an e-mail detailing his concerns to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Melanson said.

The e-mail, sent by Sgt. Jason Boatright, a former 101st medic, found its way to the Army Medical Department and eventually to Melanson.

Melanson talked to Boatright, who said more than 200 fellow soldiers were concerned about their health while stationed at Tuwaitha. Melanson said he in turn contacted the soldiers provided to him by Boatright and decided that it would be a good idea to host town hall meetings at Fort Campbell to address the issue and ease any fears.

Melanson conducted two meetings Nov. 27 and another on Nov. 28. There were members of the media but no soldiers at the first meeting, no one at the second meeting, and three soldiers at the third meeting, Melanson said.

"If the small turnout is because people are aware of the situation and aren't concerned, that's good," he said. "That's what I'm hoping for."

The nuclear research center, which was the center of Iraq's nuclear research program, was abandoned and looted just before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Shortly afterward, all radiation sources at the site were consolidated into a storage bunker within the site or removed to reduce any potential for radiation exposure.

That same year, in June 2003, a team from the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine conducted a comprehensive survey at the site, spending 10 days collecting radiation measurements and environmental samples. The team, made up of experts in radiation, health physics, environmental science and nuclear medical science, including Melanson, identified 21 buildings or areas with radioactive sources or radioactive contamination. The Army then conducted a comprehensive health risk assessment based on the samples collected by the survey team, and found that the conditions at the site fell within U.S. safety standards.

Boatright later said in an interview with a television station in Memphis that he was concerned about his exposure and that soldiers were getting sick while they were stationed at the facility.

"I noticed the guys would end up with rashes. Some had headaches, joint pain, nausea, vomiting, gastrointestinal issues. We realized we were exposed to radiation," Boatright said in the interview, the Associated Press reported.

Melanson said Boatright has been the only soldier to show concern about possible health effects from the radiation exposure, according to the AP.

"Radiation levels that would have caused those symptoms were not picked up by our instruments," Melanson said, noting that he was not aware of any other soldiers suggesting they were sick from radiation exposure at the facility.

Melanson told Army Times the nuclear center was in its worst shape in 2003.

"I lived there for 10 days," he said. "If it was dangerous I wouldn't have stayed. We lived on the site. We weren't running around in moon suits. It wasn't dangerous. It didn't require that level of protection.

It was safe in 2003, we monitored folks who were at that place and most of the radioactivity was gone before the 101st got there. You add all that together, we think soldiers were safe."

Many soldiers from various Army units have served at the nuclear center or its surrounding area since the beginning of the war, Melanson said.

"But the conclusions that I have for the 101st apply to any unit that's been there since the start of the war," he said. "People are concerned, I can understand that. I was concerned. But based on all the research we've done we think it's safe."


Soldiers who served at the site who want to be tested for radiation exposure can request the test from their local Army medical treatment facility. Former soldiers should contact their regional VA office for the test.

Those being tested will be asked to provide a urine sample that will be analyzed for the types of radioactive materials found at the nuclear research center in Iraq.

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