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The Buchenwald touch.

On March 24, 1950, U.S. Government scientists employed at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico exploded in the atmosphere a conventional (non-nuclear) bomb containing metal that had been charged with high levels of radioactivity. The scientists then went to Watrous, a town seventy miles east of the laboratory, to make a count of radiation levels.

Investigators for the General Accounting Office recently reported on this and about a dozen other experiments, all part of an effort to develop radiation weapons that would destroy human lives without damaging property. The U.S. Army and the Department of Energy confirmed that the tests had been conducted, and a Los Alamos laboratory spokesman said they might have been part of a series of 250 experiments between 1944 and 1961 in which radioactive matter was deliberately released into the atmosphere. No records made available so far indicate the extent to which human, animal, and plant life were jeopardized by these scientific endeavors, but as The New York Times reported, "all the tests released radiation at concentrations thousands of times higher than would be permitted by the Government today."

From 1963 to the early 1970s, more than 130 inmates of the Oregon and Washington state penitentiaries participated in an experiment that subjected their testicles to high levels of radiation to determine what it would take to render them temporarily sterile. Available records indicate that the prisoners signed consent forms but were not advised that there was a high risk of contracting testicular cancer.

During the late 1940s, researchers at Vanderbilt University in Nashville gave radioactive pills to 751 pregnant women who sought free care at a prenatal clinic. The pills exposed the women and their fetuses to about thirty times the natural level of radiation. A follow-up study of the children born to these women showed a higher-than-normal cancer rate; it is likely that at least three died of radiation exposure. Vanderbilt officials say they don't know whether the women were warned of the possible effects of radiation, or whether they even knew they were taking the pills.

At a state school in Fernald, Massachusetts, nineteen mentally retarded teenage boys were exposed to radioactive iron and calcium in their breakfast cereal. The study, intended to monitor the effects on nutrition and metabolism, went on from 1946 to 1956.

In an experiment that continued until 1974, almost 200 patients with leukemia and other cancers--including a six-year-old boy--were exposed to high levels of radiation from cesium and cobalt chloride at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. The Atomic Energy Commission finally called off the project when it concluded that it served no purpose.

Oak Ridge also participated--along with the University of Rochester, the University of Chicago, and the University of California Hospital in San Francisco--in an experiment in which eighteen people, some of them believed to be suffering from life-threatening diseases, were injected with deadly concentrations of plutonium, apparently without being informed or giving consent.

At Columbia University and Montefiore Hospital in New York City, twelve terminally ill cancer patients were injected, in the late 1950s, with concentrations of radioactive calcium and strontium-85 in an attempt to measure the rate at which radioactive substances were absorbed into various human tissues.

This is the tip of the iceberg. Secretary of Energy Hazel O'Leary, who deserves credit for breaking through her Department's entrenched tradition of secrecy, ineptitude, and coverup, has promised a full investigation of nuclear experimentation with human subjects--but it will take a search of millions of documents, and even then it seems likely that the full truth will never be known. One remarkable aspect of the cases brought to light so far is that the records are either incomplete or nonexistent, in total violation of customary scientific practice. Perhaps the researchers understood they might be held accountable some day, and chose not to leave a paper trail.

Predictably, the abuses revealed so far, which were prompted by distinguished investigative reporting on the part of The Albuquerque Tribune, have found eager apologists in the scientific community. Some contend that the hazards of radioactivity were not understood at the time (as if that were a reason for conducting, rather than shunning, the experiments). Others argue that the very newness of atomic science was reason enough to engage in experiments that would advance human knowledge and, perhaps, produce long-term gains. And, of course, the Cold War against the Soviet Union that was raging at the time is offered as an all-purpose excuse for conducting human research that might serve the cause of "national security."

But even in the early fervor of the Cold War and the nuclear age, some scientists understood the monstrous implications of the radiation experiments. In a 1950 memorandum, Dr. Joseph G. Hamilton, a radiation biologist who worked for the Atomic Energy Commission, warned AEC officials that the tests might have "a little of the Buchenwald touch." His reference was to the Nazi concentration camp where hundreds and perhaps thousands died as human guinea pigs in barbarous experiments. Hamilton cautioned that the AEC "would be subject to considerable criticism" if the tests were to become known.

Dr. David S. Egilman, a Rhode Island physician who has investigated instances of human experimentation by military and nuclear agencies, believes there is no doubt that the scientists who conducted the nuclear projects understood the moral implications of their work. "Based on their own documents and the history of medical ethics," Egilman told The New York Times, "they knew clearly at the time that the studies were unethical. They called this work, in effect, Nazi-like."

What makes the Buchenwald analogy particularly apt is the vulnerability of the persons who were targeted for experimentation--pregnant women, incarcerated felons, the ill, the disabled, racial minorities. Like the Nazi doctors, the American scientists apparently thought they knew which human beings were expendable.

While commending the current official interest in bringing the experiments to light, one must wonder why it took so long. After all, there have been officials from the very beginning who knew about the experiments and chose to maintain a discreet silence. If The Albuquerque Tribune had not broken the story, how much longer would we have had to wait to learn the grisly details. And if recent--and current--officials saw fit to keep the public in the dark about all this, what current horrors are they keeping under wraps?

What savagery of the late Twentieth Century will be disclosed to our grandchildren in fifty years?
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Title Annotation:U.S. nuclear radiation experimentation on humans
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Feb 1, 1994
Words:1077
Previous Article:To your health.
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