What to Know About Radiation Exposure in Veterans

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on June 06, 2022
4 min read

Military personnel enter active duty knowing there are risks involved. One risk that affects a small proportion of veterans is illness caused by radiation exposure during service. Most veterans don’t experience acute radiation sickness, but some military duties involve lower-level exposure, and this can result in an increased risk of cancer later in life. 

Cancer from radiation exposure doesn't require special care, but any cancer treatment is significant. Veterans may be able to get assistance from the department of Veteran's Affairs if they become ill due to radiation exposure during their service. 

Radiation is energy that travels outward from its source in waves or generalized particles. Radiation can be produced by machines, or it can come from unstable atoms undergoing radioactive decay. There are two types of radiation: ionizing and non-ionizing.

Non-ionizing radiation is generally not dangerous to human health. It’s a product of both natural and man-made phenomena, such as visible light, radio waves, or the waves that a microwave oven produces. Non-ionizing radiation affects atoms by forcing them to vibrate, but it does not move the electrons out of the atomic structure.

Ionizing radiation is a more powerful form of energy. It can remove electrons from atoms, including the atoms of living things. Ionizing radiation can affect living tissue and DNA, so it poses a risk to people and other living things. Objects such as x-ray machines, cosmic particles from space, and radioactive elements all produce ionizing radiation.

Exposure to non-ionizing radiation is not a cause for concern since the energy is not capable of damaging atoms. Ionizing radiation, though, can cause damage to human tissue or genetic material. 

Of course, the level of damage depends on how much exposure a person has to ionizing radiation. Occasional x-rays will not cause lasting damage to human cells. Exposure to an atomic blast, on the other hand, can result in lethal doses of ionizing radiation.

Radiation exposure symptoms depend on the amount of radiation that you encounter. Low-level exposure to radiation over a long period of time, such as occupational exposure, won’t result in short-term symptoms. That type of long-term exposure is associated with a higher risk of cancer over the course of a lifetime. The lifetime cancer risk rises as the level of radiation exposure rises.

If you are exposed to a massive dose of radiation in a short time, on the other hand, you may be at risk for acute radiation syndrome. This is sometimes called radiation sickness, and it’s very uncommon. It is the result of rare but catastrophic events such as nuclear bomb blasts or accidents at nuclear energy facilities.

The symptoms of acute radiation syndrome may include severe burns in the case of an explosion. Other symptoms may set in within hours of exposure and include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Hair loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Swollen, blistered, or itchy skin
  • Vomiting

In severe cases, acute radiation syndrome can lead to unconsciousness and eventually death. Death is often due to irreversible damage to bone marrow, which reduces the ability to fight infection and increases the risk of internal bleeding.

There are limited options for people experiencing acute radiation sickness. Doctors may focus on managing symptoms and reducing and treating infections as they develop. In some cases, treatments that help restore bone marrow recover function are beneficial. 

Recovery from acute radiation sickness can take anywhere from a few weeks to two years.

If you develop cancer due to long-term exposure to ionizing radiation, doctors will treat the cancer using the best available treatment practices. Cancer due to radiation is not different from cancer related to other causes. The course of treatment will be determined by your specific health needs, not the cause of the illness.

Most veterans do not have a risk of ionizing radiation exposure during military service. There are limited operations, though, that involve potential acute or long-term exposure. The Department of Veteran’s Affairs has identified groups of service members who may have been exposed during active duty, including:

  • Participants in the radiation clean-up at the nuclear testing sites at Enewetak Proving Ground at Enewetak Atoll from 1977 to 1980
  • Participants in a nuclear clean-up mission in Palomares, Spain, in 1966
  • Veterans exposed to the Fukushima, Japan nuclear accident in 2011
  • Veterans involved in nuclear weapons testing from 1945 to 1962 or present during and after the detonation of bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945.
  • Personnel stationed at the McMurdo Station, Antarctica, from 1964 to 1973, where a nuclear power facility developed a leak
  • Those with occupational risks, such as nuclear technicians

Veterans who were exposed to radiation during service may never experience any adverse health effects. They won't need special care related to their radiation exposure. There is no compensation program for radiation exposure that doesn't lead to health problems.

Others may develop cancer during or after their service. You can get care for cancer from your personal doctor if you prefer but you may also be eligible for coverage and treatment through the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs. The VA recognizes certain cancers as being linked to radiation exposure, including cancer of the:

  • Bile ducts
  • Bone
  • Blood and bone marrow
  • Brain 
  • Breast 
  • Colon 
  • Esophagus
  • Gall bladder
  • Liver 
  • Lungs 
  • Pancreas
  • Pharynx
  • Ovaries 
  • Salivary gland, 
  • Small intestine 
  • Stomach 
  • Thyroid 
  • Urinary tract

If you were exposed during service and have one of these cancers or other health problems, you may be eligible for disability benefits and treatment through the VA. The U.S Department of Defense has records of all possible incidents of radiation exposure and the military personnel involved and can confirm your exposure.

If you have health problems and think they might be related to radiation exposure during military service, you can contact an Environmental Health Coordinator at the VA. They can answer your questions about how to get care.