US apologises for radiation tests on unaware patients

BMJ 1995; 311 doi: (Published 14 October 1995) Cite this as: BMJ 1995;311:970

A group appointed by President Bill Clinton said last week that the American government should apologise and compensate Americans on whom radiation experiments were performed between 1949 and 1974. The experiments, sponsored by the government, were unethical, the group said, because patients were unaware that they were being exposed to radiation.

The experiments were revealed last year and prompted the energy secretary, Hazel O'Leary, to ask President Clinton to form the president's advisory committee on human radiation experiments. During the past 18 months the group has reviewed records over 30 years.

In several experiments patients were exposed to total body radiation without their knowledge so that doctors could test the effects of radiation on human tissue. Another experiment involved irradiating the testes of 131 prisoners in Oregon from 1963 to 1973. In Massachusetts hundreds of children with learning difficulties were given radioactive iodine.

In all, the group cited nine experiments for which it said compensation should be paid. Dr Ruth Faden, who chaired the committee, said that the most “unconscionable” act by the government involved miners who dug uranium that eventually went to make atomic bombs. Although the government knew of the risks to the miners, she said, it failed to provide even simple ventilation in the mines to reduce the risk.

Representatives of those who were subjected to the experiments praised the committee's findings but criticised it for failing to identify the victims and inform them individually.

“The people in these experiments have a right to know. They were denied consent and have a right to decide for themselves whether they should consult a physician,” said attorney E Cooper Brown. “What the committee has done tends to perpetuate the original crimes.”

Many on the committee are from universities that participated in the experiments, including Johns Hopkins and Harvard Universities. Dr Faden said that although all of the experiments would be unethical by today's standards, some were not beyond the standards of the time when they were performed.

Although the committee had wanted to advise patients and relatives of its findings, it found that several thousand people were involved, and tracing them all would be almost impossible. The report, which was sent to President Clinton last week for his approval, is a public document and will be kept in the national archives in Washington.--JOHN ROBERTS, North American editor, BMJ

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