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A national disgrace: humans used as `nuclear guinea pigs'

By Robert C. Cowen / November 4, 1986



Americans, who may well have been appalled at lax nuclear safety elsewhere, should look at a little-known aspect of their own country's record. It involves radioactive experiments on human beings that, taken together, are a national disgrace. For some 30 years, American citizens were used as ``nuclear guinea pigs,'' to borrow a phrase from the Congressional report that lays out the record. They were deliberately exposed to dangerous radioactive substances. Often these experiments were scientifically, as well as ethically, questionable.

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The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy, Conservation, and Power, chaired by Edward D. Markey (D) of Mass., has detailed those tests. They took place all over the United States from the early 1940s to early 1970s. They involved such things as injecting uranium and plutonium into subjects. In some cases, experimenters fed subjects both real and simulated fallout from atom bomb tests, had them breathe radioactive air, and gave them radioactive fish.

Subjects included elderly people, prisoners, and the terminally ill. Ostensibly, these people -- or those legally competent to act for them -- had consented to the tests. But it's hard to believe that it was truly informed consent. Some doses, reportedly, were 99 times the recommended body burden for the substances involved, as specified by safety standards of the time.

It may be hype for Representative Markey to compare these tests to ``the kind of demented human experiments conducted by the Nazis.'' Yet they do reflect an attitude that regarded social misfits and ``people who would soon die anyway'' as suitable subjects for what now seems foolishly dangerous research.

They also reflect a curious disregard for well-known radioactive dangers. For example, radio-strontium tends to replace calcium in bones and thus to remain in the body. Yet some of the experimenters fed or injected their subjects with strontium.

One of the main immediate safety concerns in a nuclear accident is release of radio-iodine. This accumulates on grass and shows up in cows' milk. Yet the National Reactor Testing Station in Idaho deliberately released radio-iodine into the air seven times in the mid-1960s. People drank milk from cows that ate contaminated grass and were in the pasture at the time of the radio-iodine release.

If ``demented'' is too strong an adjective, surely it's fair to call such experiments thoughtless or even stupid. This is not merely the clarity of hindsight. The dangers of radio-iodine were well known at the time of the tests. Yet the authorities went ahead with their experiments anyway.

In fairness to the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversee nuclear matters today, Markey points out that present-day officials are not responsible for such past misconduct. The experiments were conducted under auspices of the World War II Manhattan (atom bomb) Project, the former Atomic Energy Commission, and the former Energy Research and Development Administration.

DOE information officer Gail Bradshaw probably is right when she says ``I don't think you'd see the same studies done today.'' Nevertheless, that sorry 30-year record isn't so lightly dismissed. The US government does have a present responsibility to make sure such callous experimentation does not occur again.

Some experiments were conducted to develop medical treatments. Many others seem only to have been needless testing -- ostensibly to help find out how to set safe standards for radiation exposure. As the report puts it, people ``became nuclear calibration devices.''

Not much was known of these experiments at the time. But when the whole record is laid out it does indeed ``shock the conscience,'' to quote Markey.

What's equally shocking, the government has done little to keep track of the subjects and ensure needed care for any health problems arising from the experiments.

A DOE spokesman remarked that it's up to Congress to ``provide the funding and direction'' for such a program. That's a cop-out. The DOE's predecessor agencies ran those dubious experiments without Congressional mandate. As the current responsible agency, the DOE should take the lead in developing the follow-up program and in requesting extra funds if they are needed. It should also review its regulations and make sure they're strict enough to deter such needlessly dangerous studies.

A Tuesday column. Robert C. Cowen is the Monitor's natural science editor.