Military Health History Pocket Card for Health Professions Trainees & Clinicians - Office of Academic Affiliations
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Military Health History Pocket Card for Health Professions Trainees & Clinicians

Military Health History Resources

COLD WAR - Unique Health Risks
  • Chemical Warfare Agent Experiments
  • Nuclear Weapons Testing or Cleanup

The Cold War generally refers to the period of tension between the U.S. and its allies and the Soviet bloc from the end of World War II in 1945 until the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. A major fear of the Cold War was nuclear war with associated health concerns about exposure to ionizing radiation.

Approximately 200,000 US service personnel performed occupation duties in Hiroshima and Nagasaki following the atomic bombing of Japan and a similar number of service members participated in atmospheric nuclear weapons tests from 1945 to 1962.

Largely as a result of epidemiological studies of Japanese atomic bomb survivors, exposure to radiation has been associated with a number of disorders including leukemia, various cancers, and cataracts. It usually is not possible to determine definitely whether or not a neoplasm is due to ionizing radiation (as opposed to the "background rate" for the disease or some other factor such as smoking). Usually the most that can be provided scientifically is an estimate of the likelihood that radiation is responsible. This estimate sometimes is called the "probability of causation" and considers such factors as the type of neoplasm, radiation dose, age at exposure, period between exposure and manifestation of the disease, and other exposures such as smoking.

Generally no dose of radiation is considered to be safe from the risk for neoplastic transformation. On the other hand, a minimum or threshold dose of radiation generally is felt to be necessary for clinically significant nonneoplastic tissue or organ damage.

By law the Defense Special Weapons Agency (DSWA) is responsible for determining radiation dose estimates for these groups, sometimes referred to as "atomic veterans". The average exposure for these veterans as estimated by the DSWA is relatively low, with less than 1% exceeding the current annual occupational limit of 5 rem (although many veterans question the accuracy of these official doses).

Atomic veterans are eligible to participate in the VA's Ionizing Radiation Program. This includes the opportunity to have an Ionizing Radiation Registry Examination performed and special eligibility for treatment of conditions that the VA recognizes as potentially radiogenic by statute or regulation whether or not they have had a radiation compensation claim approved.

For further information about VA examination and treatment of atomic veterans or other veterans exposed to ionizing radiation in service, please contact:

Office of Public Health and Environmental Hazards (13)
VA Central Office
Washington, DC 20420
Phone 202-273-8575
F ax 202-273-9080

Veterans with questions regarding radiation compensation claims should be contact the appropriate VA Regional Office, telephone 800-827-1000.

Every VA medical facility has a registry physician for Agent Orange, Gulf War and Ionizing Radiation. This individual can be a resource for additional information.


Department of Veterans Affairs Website
Veterans Health Initiative
Independent study courses developed to recognize the connection between certain health effects and military service.

Department of Veterans Affairs Website
Ionizing Radiation Information

Department of Veterans Affairs Website
Office of Public Health and Environmental Hazards