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Nuclear Guinea Pigs

The New York Times
Saturday January 5, 1995

This article is originally from The New York Times.

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There is no good excuse for some of the callous and cavalier radiation experiments performed on unsuspecting human patients in Government-sponsored studies from the 1940's to the 1970's. Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary had good reason to declare herself "appalled, shocked and deeply saddened" after reviewing one such experiment.

The information now emerging makes it clear that many scientists lacked the commonsensical fairness, honesty and compassion that is supposedly a hallmark of civilized humans; they had no qualms about endangering their patients and lying to them about it, with the blessings of the Federal Government. Even by the loose practices of the 1940's and 1950's, many studies clearly crossed the line into unethical behavior.

The best evidence of that comes from the queasiness expressed by some of the scientists involved. In 1963, a nuclear research manager warned that radiation experiments on prisoners in Washington might have violated state and Federal laws. And in 1950, a radiation biologist warned that experiments on humans "would have a little of the Buchenwald touch," referring to Nazi experiments on concentration camp victims.

The most questionable studies used vulnerable populations of dying, imprisoned or ignorant Americans as guinea pigs in experiments designed to determine the harmful effects of radiation or to trace the path of radiation through the body. Worse yet, researchers did so without telling the subjects of the danger and without following them for long periods afterward to determine if there were any adverse health effects.

In the example that shocked Ms. O'Leary, scientists with the Manhattan Project, which developed the atom bomb, injected plutonium into 18 patients at several medical centers from 1945 to 1947 to determine how rapidly it would be excreted. The rationale seemed to be that the patients had illnesses that were expected to kill them within 10 years anyway, so why not gain useful knowledge from them that might help protect plutonium workers? Most of the patients seem not to have granted informed consent to the procedure.

In some cases, the scientists went to great lengths to hide the true nature of the tests from the subjects and their relatives. And when questions about the ethics of such studies were raised by a Congressional subcommittee headed by Representative Edward Markey of Massachusetts in 1986, the Reagan Administration turned a deaf ear.

The very least the Government can do at this late stage is to track down and examine any participants still alive to determine if they need medical care or financial compensation for harm suffered.

Ms. O'Leary deserves credit for moving promptly to find and release as much information as possible. Her example has now led the Clinton Administration to establish a Government-wide task force to investigate the extent and nature of such experimentation and whether any harm resulted. Redemption from this unprincipled research requires a thorough and honest accounting.