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By NCF Medical Committee

From Summer 2014 Forum

Below is an excerpt from a congressional report outlining radiation experiments on the government's own people:

American Nuclear Guinea Pigs: Three Decades of Radiation Experiments On U.S. Citizens U.S. Government Printing Office, November 1986


Chairman, Committee on Energy and Commerce, Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, DC

I am forwarding to you, for the Committee's use, a report prepared by the staff of the Energy Conservation and Power Subcommittee titled, "American Nuclear Guinea Pigs: Three Decades of Radiation Experiments On U.S. Citizens." This report describes material contained in Department of Energy documents on radiation experiments using human subjects.

A review of these documents reveals the frequent and systematic use of human subjects as guinea pigs for radiation experiments. Some of these experiments were conducted in the 1940's and 1950's, and others were performed during the supposedly more enlightened 1960's and 1970's. The report describes in detail 31 experiments during which about 695 persons were exposed to radiation which provided little or no medical benefit to the subjects. The report notes that it seems appropriate to urge the Department of Energy to make every practicable effort to identify the persons who served as experimental subjects, to examine the long-term histories of subjects or an increased incidence of radiation associated diseases, and to compensate these unfortunate victims for damages.

This report is the result of an ongoing Subcommittee examination of the health and safety policies of the Department of Energy. The previous Subcommittee Chairman, Mr. Ottinger, requested from the Department documentation on experiments involving human test subjects and radiation, which were funded byDOE or its predecessor agencies. During the 99th Congress, theSubcommittee initiated an intensive review of the documents, and requested further information on specified experiments. This report is the result of that intensive review.

It should be noted that this report was prepared by the Subcommittee staff for discussion purposes and may not represent the views of all Committee members. I believe the Committee and others will find this report to be extremely useful in examining issues of radiation health and safety and victims' compensation.


JOHN D. DINGELL, Michigan, Chairman


Documents provided by the Department of Energy reveal the frequent and systematic use of human subjects as guinea pigs for radiation experiments. Some experiments were conducted in the 1940s at the dawn of the nuclear age, and might be attributed to an ignorance of the long term effects of radiation exposure or to the atomic hubris that accompanied the making of the first nuclear bombs. But other experiments were conducted during the supposedly more enlightened 1960s and 1970s. In either event such experiments cannot be excused.

These experiments were conducted under the sponsorship of the Manhattan Projects the Atomic Energy Commission, or the Energy Research and Development Administration, all predecessor agencies of the Department of Energy. These experiments spanned roughly thirty years. This report presents the findings of the Subcommittee staff on this project.

Literally hundreds of individuals were exposed to radiation in experiments which provided little or no medical benefit to the subjects. The chief objectives of these experiments were to directly measure the biological effects of radioactive material; to measure doses from injected, ingested, or inhaled radioactive substances; or to measure the time it took radioactive substances to pass through the human body American citizens thus became nuclear calibration devices.

In many cases, subjects willingly participated in experiments but they became willing guinea pigs nonetheless. In some cases, the human subjects were captive audiences or populations that experimenters might frighteningly have considered "expendable": the elderly, prisoners, hospital patients suffering from terminal diseases or who might not have retained their full faculties for informed consent. For some human subjects, informed consent was not obtained or there is no evidence that informed consent was granted.

For a number of these same subjects, the government covered up the nature of the experiments and deceived the families of deceased victims as to what had transpired. In many experiments, subjects received doses that approached or even exceed presently recognized limits for occupational radiation exposure. Doses were as great as 93 times the body burden recognized at the time the experiments were conducted.

A later section of this report, Description of Human Radiation Experiments, provides details on 31 experiments, during which about 695 persons were exposed. Experiments are listed by Category and Number as designated by the Department of Energy. Some of the more repugnant or bizarre of these experiments are summarized below.

During 1945 to 1947, as part of the Manhattan Project, 18 patients who were diagnosed as having diseases which gave them expected survivals of less than 10 years were injected with plutonium, to measure the quantity retained by the human bed. These experiments were carried out at the Manhattan District Hospital at Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, New York; the University of Chicago; and the University of California, San Francisco. Despite the original diagnoses, seven of these patients lived longer than 10 years, and five lived longer than 20 years. Internal investigations by the Atomic Energy Commission found that informed consent was not granted in the initial experiments, since even the word "plutonium" was classified during World War II; and living patients were not informed that they had been injected with plutonium-until 1974.

From 1961 to 1965 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 20 subjects aged 63 to 83, were injected or fed radium or thorium to estimate internal doses and to measure passage of these substances through their bodies. Many of these subjects came from the nearby Age Center of New England, a research facility established to investigate the process of aging and the needs of the elderly. These experiments thus represent a perversion of the Center's original purpose, since feeding the subjects radium and thorium did not benefit them as individuals or the elderly population as a whole.

During the 1960s, at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, 57 normal adults were fed microscopic spheres containing radioactive uranium and manganese. These experiments were designed to determine how fast such spheres would pass through the human body after ingestion. It was believed that particles of this size could be produced by the atmospheric reentry and burnup of rockets propelled by nuclear reactors, or of radioactive power supplies.

During 1946 and 1947, at the University of Rochester, six patients with good kidney function were injected with uranium salts to determine the concentration which would produce renal injury. One patient was diagnosed as being in a "hallucinatory state," another was considered suffering from "emotional maladjustment," and a third, admitted to the hospital for a fifth time, was described as follows: "As he had no home, he agreed willingly to enter the metabolic unit for special studies."

From 1963 to 1971, 67 inmates at Oregon State Prison and 64 inmates at the Washington State Prison received x-rays to their testes to examine the effects of ionizing radiation on human fertility and testicular function. These experiments were conducted by the Pacific Northwest Research Foundation and the University of Washington. Subjects had to agree to receive vasectomies after completion of the experiments. The Energy Research and Development Administration planned to begin medical follow up of the irradiated prisoners, but these plans were dropped in 1976 at the request of the U.S. Attorney in Portland after several irradiated inmates filed suits against state and federal governments.

From 1953 to 1957, at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, approximately 12 terminal brain tumor patients were injected with uranium to determine the dose at which kidney damage began to occur. Most of the patients were described as comatose or in a "semi-coma."

From 1963 to 1965, at the Atomic Energy Commission National Reactor Testing Station in Idaho, radioactive iodine was purposely released on seven separate occasions. In one of these experiments, seven human subjects drank milk from cows which had grazed on iodine-contaminated land. This experiment was designed to measure the passage of iodine through the food chain into the thyroids of human subjects. In a second experiment, three human subjects were placed on the pasture during iodine release, and seven subjects were placed on the pasture in a third experiment. In addition, "several" individuals were contaminated during yet another experiment when vials of radioactive iodine accidentally broke. Cows grazed on contaminated land and their milk was counted in four of the experiments; in the remaining three, radiation measurements were made only in the pasture.

During May 1945, at the Clinton Laboratory, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, two groups of 10 subjects were exposed to beta rays, to determine the dose that would begin to cause reddening of the skin.

During 1951 and 1952, at least 14 human subjects were exposed to tritium in air, by immersion of body parts in water, or by drinking. These experiments were designed to measure the retention or excretion of tritium by the human body. The experiments were carried out by the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, or the General Electric Company in Richland, Washington.

During 1956, the US Air Force sent manned planes through radiation clouds from atomic bomb tests at Eniwetok and Bikini Atolls in the Pacific to measure radiation doses in the clouds and to the crew.

During the early 1950s. Foster D. Snell, a consulting firm, carried out experiments for the U.S. Army by placing "synthetic" radioactive soil on the hands of about 118 subjects, and measuring the ability of different cleaning agents to remove the contamination.

From 1961 to 1963, at the University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory, 102 human subjects were fed real fallout from the Nevada Test Site; simulated fallout particles that contained strontium, barium, or cesium; or solutions of strontium and cesium. This experiment was designed to measure human absorption and retention of these radioactive substances.

During the early 1960s. at the Oak Ridge Institute for Nuclear Studies, 54 hospital patients with normal intestinal tracts were fed lanthanum-140. This experiment was designed to measure the rate at which this radioactive substance passed through the body.

During the late 1950s, at Columbia University and Montefiore Hospital, the Bronx, 12 terminal cancer patients were injected with radioactive calcium and strontium. This experiment was designed to compare the distribution of these two substances among body tissues after autopsy.

In 1967 at the Hanford Environmental Health Foundation and the Battelle Memorial Institute, both at Richland, Washington, radioactive promethium was administered to 14 subjects by injection or drinking. These experiments were designed to measure the passage of this substance through the body and the ability of a drug (chelating agent) to increase the removal of promethium.

During 1963, at the Battelle Memorial Institute, Richland, Washington, five subjects were injected with radioactive phosphorus. In addition, five subjects were fed fish from the Columbia River which contained radioactive phosphorus, produced and discharged into the river by reactors at the Atomic Energy Commission's Hanford Site. These experiments were designed to estimate the doses to humans eating contaminated fish.

In many of the reported experiments, radiation was used as treatment for diseases which were resistant to more conventional methods. Most frequently, radiation were used in attempts to treat cancer, leukemia, or other malignant disorders of the, blood. The Subcommittee staff does not question these applications, since patients were irradiated in an attempt to treat their diseases, and in some cases the treatment was successful. In these cases the radiation exposure was meant to carry some medical benefit for patients, and observation of the effects of exposure, which enhanced understanding of radiation effects, was incidental to the treatment. In some cases, however, long term medical follow up of the surviving patients, which might have provided information for useful comparison with other treatments that might seem promising, was not conducted.

The studies provided by the Department of Energy demonstrate the need for long term medical follow-up. Category 10.001. Number 69, describes a retrospective study on the health of humans exposed to radioactive iodine, and includes as a study population the group of Marshallese Islanders exposed to fallout from early atomic bomb tests. This report notes that thyroid nodules, produced by exposure to radioactive iodine, did not first appear among inhabitants of the atoll — with the highest fallout until 9 years after the testing. Nodules began appearing some years later among inhabitants of atolls where the doses were lower; and after 22 years, nodules were still being observed.

If there is one thing the government can do for these experimental victims and their families, even at this late date, it is to conduct long term medical follow up of populations exposed to radioactive material. That practice has been adopted by the Defense Depart-ment through its Nuclear Test Personnel Review, a registry for military personnel exposed to fallout from atmospheric nuclear tests. The primary objectives of the Review are to identify the approximately 200,000 Defense Department personnel involved in such tests, to determine their exposures, to identify incidence of death or illness, and to assist veterans in claims for compensation. If this effort can be carried out for military personnel acting in the line of duty, surely a similar effort should be possible for the far smaller number of peaceful atomic soldiers used as human subjects in radiation experiments.

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