Intended for healthcare professionals


US compensates subjects of radiation experiments

BMJ 1996; 313 doi: (Published 07 December 1996) Cite this as: BMJ 1996;313:1421

The United States federal government has announced that it will pay $4.8m (£3.2m) in compensation to survivors of secret cold war experiments sponsored by the government in which patients were injected with radioactive isotopes without their consent.

The experiments were an offshoot of the Manhattan Project and were developed to gain an understanding of the biological consequences of nuclear warfare. They violated the Nuremberg code, as in most cases patients were unaware that they were experimental subjects and were not only unlikely to derive any therapeutic benefit from their participation but were also subjected to potential harm.

According to the energy secretary, Hazel O'Leary, the compensation is part of an ongoing effort by the government to rectify its past behaviour, but she said: “It in no way compensates families for what they have suffered or what they haven't known about their suffering.”

The recent settlement follows the recommendations of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments established by US President Bill Clinton in 1994. The advisory committee found that between 1944 and 1974 the US conducted or sponsored about 4000 experiments involving up to 20 000 people.

The experiments varied widely, from direct injections of uranium, polonium, and plutonium into unsuspecting patients to the testicular irradiation of prisoners and the intentional release of radiation into the atmosphere. Other experiments investigated by the committee included studies performed on army personnel stationed near atomic test sites and uranium miners, as well as the far reaching 1953 “Project Sunshine,” in which human tissues and bones from areas of radioactive fallout worldwide were collected and tested for residual radioactivity.

The experiments were performed under the auspices of the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, and the Atomic Energy Commission. They were conducted by both military officials and civilian physicians and scientists.

The experiments were intended to study the short and long term effects of radiation exposure, establish “safe” exposure limits, and develop accurate radioactivity monitoring assays. The monitoring assays developed are still standard today. Although much of the research advanced biomedical science, many studies were performed in the pursuit of national defence and in the interests of space exploration.


Tests were performed on soldiers stationed near atomic sites

Isotope injections were given to 18 patients between 1945 and 1947 who had been admitted with various disorders including hepatitis, dermatitis, scleroderma, ulcers, heart attacks, and Addison's disease. Initially, researchers claimed that only those patients deemed “terminal” who were expected to die within a decade were chosen. This was believed to obviate the problem of cancers induced by radiation in the experimental subjects.

Some of the patients survived more than the 10 years predicted, and one is still alive. It is unclear whether the experiments themselves contributed to the subjects' death. However, excess morbidity, such as radiation induced osteopenia and uranium induced urinary tract disorders, have been directly attributed to the experiments and confirmed with postmortem examinations. As late as 1973, follow up studies on the radioactive injections were performed without patient consent.

The presidential advisory committee also discovered that under current federal regulations, human research can still be performed in secret, and that in some circumstances informed consent can be waived. Moreover, governmental policies still allow the intentional atmospheric release of biological and radioactive contaminants.

These findings highlight the ongoing conflict of preserving individual rights in the face of national security interests. Furthermore, the panel found that many of the existing informed consent forms used in conventional biomedical research intentionally mislead prospective experimental subjects with overly optimistic portrayals of the potential benefits of participating in investigational studies. In the next two months, President Clinton is expected to respond to the panel's report by announcing further measures to prevent recurrence of governmental abuses and to compensate more survivors. —DEBORAH JOSEFSON, Norwalk, Connecticut

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