Compensation urged for US radiation victims

BMJ 1994; 308 doi: (Published 08 January 1994) Cite this as: BMJ 1994;308:75
  1. R Rhein

    The US government should compensate people injured from medical testing of radioactive substances over three decades, says the energy secretary, Hazel O'Leary. In interviews with reporters last week O'Leary also suggested that the government's previous resistance to paying the claims of those exposed to fallout from open air atomic bomb tests was wrong.

    O'Leary has reacted quickly to news stories detailing medical experiments funded by the Department of Energy's predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission, from the late 1940s to the early 1970s. The experiments, which were also funded by the US Public Health Service, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the Department of Defense, affected up to 800 people, in some cases without their knowledge of the exposure to radiation.

    Although congressional hearings on 700 radiation experiments funded by the government were held in 1986 by Representative Edward Markey of Massachusetts, the issue resurfaced last November when the Albuquerque Tribune in New Mexico published a series of articles documenting instances in which dozens of people, including prisoners, mental patients, and pregnant women, were injected with minute quantities of plutonium.

    Since then a free telephone “hot line” has been set up so that radiation victims can call and identify themselves. O'Leary has also appointed an independent panel of medical and legal experts, chaired by medical ethicist Ruth Fayden at the Johns Hopkins University, to find and review millions of pages of classified documents and ascertain what experiments were performed, find the test subjects, and determine whether any ethical violations occurred.

    Several experiments have been reported in the press. For example, in the 1940s and 1950s scientists from Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology fed radioactive forms of iron and calcium (sometimes in their breakfast milk) to 19 mentally retarded teenage boys at the Fernald State School in Waltham, Massachusetts, to study the body's ability to digest minerals. In the experiment, funded by the Atomic Energy Commission among others, the boys were exposed to radiation that was at least the equivalent of 50 chest radiographs, according to an article in the Boston Globe. The article said that the boys' parents were not told that the experiments involved exposure to radiation.

    According to the Washington Post, researchers in Tennessee, Arkansas, Nebraska, Michigan, and Iowa injected at least 235 newborn babies with iodine-131, a weak radioactive isotope, to learn how the normal thyroid gland works in young babies. Children were also exposed to radiation at a research institution financed by the Atomic Energy Commission in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, according to the New York Times.

    An experiment for the Defense Department in the 1960s and 1970s exposed patients with cancer to levels of radiation that were known to make people acutely ill, the New York Times story said. Records of the studies showed that nine of the first 40 people exposed to the radiation died within 38 days.

    Radiation experiments were done on at least 319 hospital patients, employees, and convicts, according to an article in The Oregonian newspaper. The article said that a four page summary of the experiments showed that the experiments ranged from injecting radioactive substances into volunteers to irradiating prisoners' sex organs with x rays.

    Radiation was deliberately injected into the atmosphere in a dozen secret tests conducted in New Mexico, Tennessee, and Utah from 1948 to 1952, according to a report by the US General Accounting Office released by Senator John Glenn of Ohio. The Washington Post said that the tests were part of an attempt to determine how far and fast the released radioactive particles spread.

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