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radiation and human radiation experiments

August 22, 2011

children – According to the government report, the Fernald School experiments were “morally troubling” and the government owes the test subjects an apology. But because there was no evidence that the subjects were harmed by exposure to any dangerous levels of radiation, the government is not obliged to monetarily compensate them. At the Oct. 3 news conference that announced the completion of the committee’s nearly 1,000-page report, Clinton made a formal apology to the thousands of subjects of radiation experiments reviewed by the committee. The report stated that children at the Fernald School were “unfairly burdened” by researchers from MIT and Harvard, who encouraged the children to take part in tests with promises of gifts or trips to Red Sox games. The researchers also appeared “unwilling to respect” some children’s wishes not to participate in experiments, according to the report. The parents of the children involved in the experiments were not told that the tests involved radiation (Institute Charged in Fernald Radiation Experiment Lawsuit).

prisoners – The government has been forcing prisoners, the majority of whom are Blacks and Hispanics, to be subject of these types of inhumane experiments for years. They recall the Tuskegee experiments, where 400 Black men were allowed to suffer with syphilis for 40 years so that doctors could study the disease. Also, Dr. Albert Kilgman, at Holmesburg Prison near Philadelphia, under the direction of major pharmaceutical companies like Merck and Dupont, exposed Black prisoners to herpes, gonorrhea, malaria, dysentery and even athlete’s foot from the 1950s to the 1970s. In 1952 over 300 Black inmates at an Ohio state prison were injected with live cancer cells so that doctors at the Sloan-Kettering Institute could study the effects. In these cases the research subjects’ rights were violated because either they were not told that they were participating in an experiment or the government knew the experiments had no therapeutic value, or both. Other cases include Heinrich v. Sthemet, 62 F.Supp.2d 282(D.Mass. 1999) (government utilized false pretenses to lure plaintiffs into participating in radiation experiments which the government knew had no therapeutic value); Stadt v. Univ. of Rochester, 921 F.Supp. 1023 (W.D.N.Y. 1996) (plaintiff, who thought she was receiving medical treatment for scleroderma, was injected with plutonium without her knowledge or consent as part of a U.S. Army study); In re Cincinnati Radiation Litig., 874 F.Supp. 796 (S.D. Ohio 1995) (plaintiffs were not informed that the radiation they were receiving from the Department of Defense was part of a military experiment rather than treatment of their cancer) (US prisoners forced to submit to radiation experiments for private foreign companies).

pregnant women – In an exceptionally large study at Vanderbilt University in the 1940s, approximately 820 poor, pregnant Caucasian women were administered tracer doses of radioactive iron. Vanderbilt worked with the Tennessee State Department of Health, and the research was partly funded by the Public Health Service. Today, most women take iron supplements during pregnancy. This experiment provided the scientific data needed to determine the nutritional requirements for iron during pregnancy. The radioiron portion of the nutrition study, directed by Dr. Paul Hahn, was designed to study iron absorption during pregnancy. The women, who were anywhere from less than ten weeks to more than thirty-five weeks pregnant, were administered a single oral dose of radioactive iron, Fe-59, during their second prenatal visit, before receiving their routine dose of therapeutic iron. On their third prenatal visit, blood was drawn and tests performed to determine the percentage of iron absorbed by the mother. The infants’ blood was then examined at birth to determine the percentage of radioiron absorbed by the fetus. The doses to the women were estimated in the study article, using crude dose-estimation methods available at the time, to be from 200,000 to 1,000,000 countable counts per minute. Although the investigators did not estimate doses to the fetuses in the original study, Dr. Hahn later estimated fetal doses to be between 5 and 15 rad. This estimate, however, has been questioned. There is at least some indication that the women neither gave their consent nor were aware they were participating in an experiment. Vanderbilt study subjects, expressing bitterness at the way they believed they had been treated, testified at an Advisory Committee meeting that the proffered drink, called a “cocktail” by the investigators, was offered with no mention of its contents. “I remember taking a cocktail,” one woman said simply. “I don’t remember what it was, and I was not told what it was.” Although it is not clear what, if anything, the subjects were told, information about the Vanderbilt experiment was available to the general public. In late 1946 news reports appeared in the Nashville press (ACHRE Report).

human testing – The World Organization Against Torture, in its 1998 report “Torture in the United States”, stated allegations of these unethical human research procedures being made by U.S. activist groups are credible enough that they should not be dismissed without an impartial investigation: “Similar concerns also are being raised about involuntary human experimentation involving new forms of classified research and testing of high technology military weaponry, including microwave and laser equipment. Groups working on these issues cite, among other evidence of the existence of these unauthorized testing procedures, a White House inter-governmental memorandum dated March 27, 1997, establishing stronger guidelines prohibiting non-consensual testing for classified research, but suggesting, by implication, that this type of human subject research may, in fact, be taking place…these allegations of continuing improprieties involving secret government sponsored human testing should not be dismissed without more thorough, impartial investigation.” (A Current US Program of Involuntary Human Experimentation).

secret testing – For over twenty years the law allowed the US Department of Defense (DoD) to use Americans as “guinea pigs.” This law (the US code annotated Title 50, Chapter 32, Section 1520, dated 30 July, 1977) remained on the books until it was repealed under public pressure in 1998. The new and revised bill prohibits the DoD from conducting tests and experiments on humans, but allows “exceptions.” One of the exceptions is that a test or experiment can be carried out for “any peaceful purpose that is related to a medical, therapeutic, pharmaceutical, agricultural, industrial, or research activity.” Thus, the 1998 law has obvious loopholes which allow secret testing to continue (How scientists secretly used US citizens as guinea pigs during the Cold War).

Effects of Radiation – Radiation specialists use the unit “rem” (or sievert) to describe the amount of radiation dose someone received. We are going to use that unit throughout the sections. Without getting into technical specifics about that unit, it is enough to know that it indicates a measure of how much radiation energy is absorbed in our body. And, as we will see in other sections, the total energy that is absorbed and its effectiveness in causing change is the basis for determining whether health effects may result.

  • 0 – 5 rem received in a short period or over a long period is safe—we don’t expect observable health effects.

  • 5 – 10 rem received in a short period or over a long period is safe—we don’t expect observable health effects. At this level, an effect is either nonexistent or too small to observe.

  • 10 – 50 rem received in a short period or over a long period—we don’t expect observable health effects although above 10 rem your chances of getting cancer are slightly increased. We may also see short-term blood cell decreases for doses of about 50 rem received in a matter of minutes.

  • 50 – 100 rem received in a short period will likely cause some observable health effects and received over a long period will increase your chances of getting cancer. Above 50 rem we may see some changes in blood cells, but the blood system quickly recovers.

  • 100 – 200 rem received in a short period will cause nausea and fatigue. 100 – 200 rem received over a long period will increase your chances of getting cancer.

  • 200 – 300 rem received in a short period will cause nausea and vomiting within 24-48 hours. Medical attention should be sought.

  • 300 – 500 rem received in a short period will cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea within hours. Loss of hair and appetite occurs within a week. Medical attention must be sought for survival; half of the people exposed to radiation at this level will die if they receive no medical attention.

  • 500 – 1,200 rem in a short period will likely lead to death within a few days.

  • More than 10,000 rem in a short period will lead to death within a few hours.

The health effects listed above are for a radiation dose to the entire body. If the radiation is given to a smaller area of the body, there are other effects that may occur, but illness or death is not expected unless noted:

  • 40 rem or more locally to the eyes can cause cataracts.

  • 100 rem – 500 rem or more can cause hair loss for a section of the body that has hair.

  • 200 rem or more locally to the skin can cause skin reddening (similar to a sunburn).

  • 1,000 rem or more can cause a breakdown of the intestinal lining, leading to internal bleeding, which can lead to illness and death when the dose is to the abdomen.

  • More than 1,500 rem or more locally to the skin can cause skin reddening and blistering (Effects of Radiation).

Sterilization experiments – From about March 1941 to about January 1945, sterilization experiments were conducted at Auschwitz, Ravensbrück, and other places by Dr. Carl Clauberg. The purpose of these experiments was to develop a method of sterilization which would be suitable for sterilizing millions of people with a minimum of time and effort. These experiments were conducted by means of X-ray, surgery and various drugs. Thousands of victims were sterilized. Aside from its experimentation, the Nazi government sterilized around 400,000 individuals as part of its compulsory sterilization program. Intravenous injections of solutions speculated to contain iodine and silver nitrate were successful, but had unwanted side effects such as vaginal bleeding, severe abdominal pain, and cervical cancer. Therefore, radiation treatment became the favored choice of sterilization. Specific amounts of exposure to radiation destroyed a person’s ability to produce ova or sperm. The radiation was administered through deception. Prisoners were brought into a room and asked to complete forms, which took two to three minutes. In this time, the radiation treatment was administered and, unknown to the prisoners, they were rendered completely sterile. Many suffered severe radiation burns (Wikepedia).

Human radiation experiments – Since the discovery of ionizing radiation, a number of human radiation experiments have been performed to understand the effects of ionizing radiation and radioactive contamination on the human body, specifically with the element plutonium.On January 15, 1994, President Bill Clinton formed the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments (ACHRE), chaired by Ruth Faden of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. The committee was created to investigate and report the use of human beings as test subjects in experiments involving the effects of ionizing radiation in federally funded research. The committee discovered the causes of the experiments, and reasons why the proper oversight did not exist, and made several recommendations to prevent future occurrences of similar events. The final report issued by the ACHRE can be found at the Department of Energy’s website here (Wikepedia).


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