Exposure Worry: The Psychological Impact of Perceived Ionizing Radiation Exposure in British Nuclear Test Veterans.
Reference: Collett, G., Young, W.R., Martin, W. and Anderson, R. (2021). Exposure Worry: The Psychological Impact of Perceived Ionizing Radiation Exposure in British Nuclear Test Veterans. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(22), 12188
Background to research
The psychological impact of believing one is exposed to ionizing radiation is underexamined in British nuclear test veterans, compared to research in Japanese atomic bomb survivors or populations affected by nuclear power plant accidents. Newspaper reports and information gained from surveys and studies involving families of nuclear test veterans suggest that anxiety might be an important psychological issue in this population. To better understand this, a reliable assessment of anxiety, and in-depth understanding about worry and the broader psychological impact of the British nuclear weapons testing programme, is required.
What did the research involve?
We first invited veteran participants from the nuclear test community to complete the Geriatric Anxiety Inventory (Short-Form) scale. This is a validated screening tool to detect clinical levels of anxiety in older adults. A total of 89 British nuclear test veterans completed this scale.
We then conducted interviews with 19 British nuclear test veterans to understand worry and the broader psychological impact of their experience. All interviews were audio recorded and transcribed. The interview transcripts were subsequently analysed to identify common themes across the data.
What were the research questions?
The key questions that we asked are, firstly, what is the prevalence of clinically relevant anxiety in a sample of British nuclear test veterans? Secondly, we wanted to understand the extent of worry about perceived ionizing radiation exposure and the broader psychological impact of being involved in the British nuclear weapons testing programme.
What did we find?
30 (33.7%) of the British nuclear test veteran sample met the criteria for clinically relevant anxiety, which appeared high compared to another study elsewhere which used the same scale in older adults from the general population. Moreover, the mean score obtained for this scale in our sample appeared higher than mean scores in older adults elsewhere using the same scale.
The interviews indicated that the psychological impact of the nuclear testing programme was mixed. Worry about health effects in the veterans themselves was not particularly relevant but worry regarding adverse effects in their grandchildren was important to a few of the veterans.
The sense of responsibility for family health and subsequent guilt also appeared to be an important mental health issue in the veterans whose family members had health conditions. Moreover, several veterans were angry at authorities for reasons such as perceived deception and negligence. This research highlights the importance for authorities to emphasise transparency and accountability when addressing the potential health risks of real or perceived ionizing radiation exposure.
Who did this research?
Researchers in CHRC.
This work was, in part, supported by the Nuclear Community Charity Fund (NCCF) through funds received by The Armed Forces Covenant Fund Trust under the Aged Veterans Fund Grant AVF16 and Brunel University London.
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The prevalence of clinically relevant anxiety in British nuclear test veterans appears high compared to older adults in the general population. It is noted that our sample might not be representative of the whole nuclear test veteran population.
Not all veterans interviewed expressed any psychological impact. Worry about potential health effects in themselves was not particularly relevant, but worry about the health of their grandchildren was relevant to a few veterans. This is consistent with age trends of worry (older adults tend to worry more about the health and wellbeing of loved ones, rather than their own health).
In veterans who's family members had a serious health condition, the sense of responsibility and subsequent guilt was an important issue. Moreover, many veterans interviewed expressed anger due to perceived deception and negligence in authorities. Therefore, authorities must emphasise transparency and accountability when addressing the potential impact in similar scenarios.
Links to the research paper
This is a peer-reviewed study meaning that other scientists have reviewed this work before the authors published it in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in 2021.