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Monday, May 26, 2014

Nuclear Experiments on Humans

“It is desired that no document be released which refers to experiments with humans and might have adverse effect on public opinion or result in legal suits. Documents covering such work should be classified `secret’.”
April 17, 1947 Atomic Energy Commission memo from Colonel O.G. Haywood, Jr. to Dr. Fidler at the Oak Ridge Laboratory in Tennessee
In the early days of Nuclear Energy, the US government (and by extension, the US Military), had a monopoly on man-made radioactive materials.  There was a great deal of curiousity about these new materials, and what their effect on the human body might be. 

There was also a great deal of urgency to understand how and where various radioactive nuclides would accumulate in the body.  Shortly after the end of World War II, the Soviets (followed by the Chinese) detonated their own nuclear weapons, and the cold war was on...  The possibility of a nuclear attack spurred a great deal of research into the uptake of radioactive substances.

Unfortunately, most of this research was unethical - by the Government's own admission.  While some of the subjects were voluntary (and therefore somewhat informed), the vast majority of test subjects were neither voluntary nor informed.  A handful of the test subjects were prisoners.  If matters can be made even worse, most of the data gathered from this research is either classified, useless, or lost.

About 4000 different experiments were conducted or sponsored by the government between 1944 and 1974, Including:
  • Experiments involving the injection of Plutonium or other nuclear fuels
  • Non-therapeutic research on children (radioactive Iodine uptake by the children's thyroids)
  • Total body irradiation
  • Research on prisoners
  • Human experimentation in connection with Nuclear Weapons
  • Intentional environmental releases of radioactive contaminants
  • Observational research involving Uranium miners
  • Observational research involving residents of the Marshall Islands (Nuclear Weapon testing area)
  • irradiating the heads of children
  • feeding radioactive material to mentally disabled children
  • exposing U.S. soldiers and prisoners to high levels of radiation
  • irradiating the eyeballs of prisoners
  • exhuming bodies from graveyards to test them for radiation (without the consent of the families of the deceased)
Here is a link to the statement of the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments about these unethical experiments (7MB pdf file).

There were some very important reasons for conducting these experiments, of course.  What is troubling and shameful, however, is the unethical manner by which they were conducted.

Plutonium production was beginning to ramp up in the mid-1940s.  Although precautions would be taken, personnel might be exposed to it, and it was important for their health and safety to set a maximum exposure level.  To do so, a means of detecting the Plutonium in excreta had to be developed, and a known quantity of Plutonium had to be ingested beforehand.  It was mostly done in secrecy.

Plutonium Experiments:
From April 10, 1945 to July 18, 1947, eighteen people were injected with plutonium as part of the Manhattan Project.  Doses administered ranged from 95 to 5,900 nanocuries.

Albert Stevens, a man misdiagnosed with stomach cancer, received "treatment" for his "cancer" at the U.C. San Francisco Medical Center in 1945. Dr. Joseph Gilbert Hamilton, a Manhattan Project doctor in charge of the human experiments in California had Stevens injected with Pu-238 and Pu-239 without informed consent. Stevens never had cancer; a surgery to remove cancerous cells was highly successful in removing the benign tumor, and he lived for another 20 years with the injected plutonium.

Since Stevens received the highly radioactive Pu-238, his accumulated dose over his remaining life was higher than anyone has ever received: 64 Sv (6400 rem). Neither Albert Stevens nor any of his relatives were told that he never had cancer; they were led to believe that the experimental "treatment" has worked.  His cremated remains were surreptitiously acquired by Argonne National Laboratory Center for Human Radiobiology in 1975 without the consent of surviving relatives.  Some of the ashes were transferred to the National Human Radiobiology Tissue Repository at Washington State University, which keeps the remains of people who died having radioisotopes in their body.

Three patients at Billings Hospital at the University of Chicago were injected with plutonium.  In 1946, six employees of a Chicago metallurgical lab were given water that was contaminated with plutonium-239, so that researchers could study how plutonium is absorbed into the digestive tract.
An eighteen-year-old woman at an upstate New York hospital, expecting to be treated for a pituitary gland disorder, was injected with Plutonium.

Below, a sheep gets his Plutonium injection.  Note the lead-lined box, and interesting suspended lead head shields.  This is probably not Plutonium, but a very lethal high-activity isotope.

Uranium Experiments:
Between 1946 and 1947, researchers at the University of Rochester injected uranium-234 and uranium-235 in dosages ranging from 6.4 to 70.7 micrograms per kilogram of body weight into six people to study how much uranium their kidneys could tolerate before becoming damaged.

Between 1953 and 1957, at the Massachusetts General Hospital, Dr. William Sweet injected eleven terminally ill, comatose and semi-comatose patients with uranium in an experiment to determine, among other things, its viability as a chemotherapy treatment against brain tumors, which all but one of the patients had (one being a mis-diagnosis). Dr. Sweet, who died in 2001, maintained that consent had been obtained from the patients and next of kin.

Intentional Releases:
The "Green Run" was a secret U.S. Government release of radioactive fission products on December 2–3, 1949, at the Hanford Site plutonium production facility, located in Eastern Washington.

Radioisotopes released at that time were supposed to be detected by U.S. Air Force reconnaissance. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the U.S. Government have revealed some of the details of the experiment.  Sources cite 5,500 to 12,000 curies (200 to 440 TBq) of iodine-131 released, and an even greater amount of xenon-133.

The radiation was distributed over populated areas, and caused the cessation of intentional radioactive releases at Hanford until 1962 when more experiments commenced.

There are some indications contained in the documents released by the FOIA requests that many other tests were conducted in the 1940s prior to the Green Run, although the Green Run was a particularly large test. Evidence suggests that filters to remove the iodine were disabled during the Green Run.

The project gets its name from the processing of uranium at Hanford.  Due to the higher radioactivity involved, batch processing waited 83 to 101 days to allow the radioactive isotopes to decay.  For the Green Run test, a batch was run with only a 16 day cooling period.  The unfiltered exhaust from the production facility contained far more radioactive iodine than during a normal batch.

Children in nearby grade schools were scanned afterward for radioactive iodine accumulation in the thyroid.

The stack on this Hanford facility (the PUREX building) is where the radioactive Iodine was released.

Experiments on newborns and the handicapped::
 In 1953, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) ran several studies at the University of Iowa on the health effects of radioactive iodine in newborns and pregnant women. In one study, researchers gave pregnant women from 100 to 200 microcuries (3.7 to 7.4 MBq) of iodine-131, in order to study the women's aborted embryos in an attempt to discover at what stage, and to what extent, radioactive iodine crosses the placental barrier.

In another study, they gave 25 newborn babies (who were under 36 hours old and weighed from 5.5 to 8.5 pounds (2.5 to 3.9 kg)) iodine-131, either by oral administration or through an injection, so that they could measure the amount of iodine in their thyroid glands, as iodine would go to that gland.

In another AEC study, researchers at the University of Nebraska College of Medicine fed iodine-131 to 28 healthy infants through a gastric tube to test the concentration of iodine in the infants' thyroid glands.

In 1953, the AEC sponsored a study to discover if radioactive iodine affected premature babies differently from full-term babies. In the experiment, researchers from Harper Hospital in Detroit orally administered iodine-131 to 65 premature and full-term infants who weighed from 2.1 to 5.5 pounds (0.95 to 2.49 kg).

From 1955 to 1960, Sonoma State Hospital in northern California served as a permanent drop-off location for mentally handicapped children diagnosed with cerebral palsy or lesser disorders. The children subsequently underwent painful experimentation without adult consent. Many were given irradiated milk, some spinal taps "for which they received no direct benefit."  Reporters of 60 Minutes learned that in these five years, the brain of every cerebral palsy child who died at Sonoma State was removed and studied without parental consent.  According to the CBS story, over 1,400 patients died at the clinic.

In an experiment in the 1960s, over 100 Alaskan citizens were continually exposed to radioactive iodine.

Experiments involving mentally ill children, pregant women, and fetuses:
Immediately after World War II, researchers at Vanderbilt University gave 829 pregnant mothers in Tennessee what they were told were "vitamin drinks" that would improve the health of their babies. The mixtures contained radioactive iron and the researchers were determining how fast the radioisotope crossed into the placenta.  At least three children are known to have died from the experiments, from cancers and leukemia.   Four of the women's babies died from cancers as a result of the experiments, and the women experienced rashes, bruises, anemia, hair/tooth loss, and cancer.

From 1946 to 1953, at the Walter E. Fernald State School in Massachusetts, in an experiment sponsored by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and the Quaker Oats corporation, 73 mentally disabled children were fed oatmeal containing radioactive calcium and other radioisotopes, in order to track "how nutrients were digested".  The children were not told that they were being fed radioactive chemicals; they were told by hospital staff and researchers that they were joining a "science club".

The University of California Hospital in San Francisco exposed 29 patients, some with rheumatoid arthritis, to total body irradiation (100-300 rad dose) to obtain data for the military.

In the 1950s, researchers at the Medical College of Virginia performed experiments on severe burn victims, most of them poor and black, without their knowledge or consent, with funding from the Army and in collaboration with the AEC.  In the experiments, the subjects were exposed to additional burning, experimental antibiotic treatment, and injections of radioactive isotopes.  The amount of radioactive phosphorus-32 injected into some of the patients, 500 microcuries (19 MBq), was 50 times the "acceptable" dose for a healthy individual; for people with severe burns, this likely led to significantly increased death rates.

Between 1948 and 1954, funded by the federal government, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Hospital inserted radium rods into the noses of 582 Baltimore, Maryland schoolchildren as an alternative to adenoidectomy. Similar experiments were performed on over 7,000 U.S. Army and Navy personnel during World War II.[ Nasal radium irradiation became a standard medical treatment and was used in over two and a half million Americans.

In 1951 at Johns Hopkins, Henrietta Lacks had been treated with a radium rod in her cervix, and 2 radium plaques placed on her skin, for a cervical tumor.

In another study at the Walter E. Fernald State School, in 1956, researchers gave mentally disabled children radioactive calcium orally and intravenously. They also injected radioactive chemicals into malnourished babies and then pushed needles through their skulls, into their brains, through their necks, and into their spines to collect cerebrospinal fluid for analysis.

In 1961 and 1962, ten Utah State Prison inmates had blood samples taken which were mixed with radioactive chemicals and reinjected back into their bodies.

The Atomic Energy Commission funded the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to administer radium-224 and thorium-234 to 20 people between 1961 and 1965.  Many were chosen from the Age Center of New England and had volunteered for "research projects on aging".  Doses were 0.2–2.4 microcuries (7.4–88.8 kBq) for radium and 1.2–120 microcuries (44–4,440 kBq) for thorium.

In a 1967 study that was published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, pregnant women were injected with radioactive cortisol to see if it would cross the placental barrier and affect the fetuses.

Fallout Research:
In 1957, atmospheric nuclear explosions in Nevada, which were part of Operation Plumbbob were later determined to have released enough radiation to have caused from 11,000 to 212,000 excess cases of thyroid cancer among U.S. citizens who were exposed to fallout from the explosions, leading to between 1,100 and 21,000 deaths.

Early in the Cold War, in studies known as Project GABRIEL and Project SUNSHINE, researchers in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia tried to determine how much nuclear fallout would be required to make the Earth uninhabitable.  They realized that atmospheric nuclear testing had provided them an opportunity to investigate this.  Such tests had dispersed radioactive contamination worldwide, and examination of human bodies could reveal how readily it was taken up and hence how much damage it caused.

Of particular interest was strontium-90 in the bones.  Infants were the primary focus, as rapitly groing infants would have the best opportunity to absorb the radioactivevcontaminants.  As a result of this conclusion, researchers began a program to collect human bodies and bones from all over the world, with a particular focus on infants.  The bones were cremated and the ashes analyzed for radioisotopes.  This project was kept secret primarily because it would be a public relations disaster; as a result parents and family were not told what was being done with the body parts of their relatives.

Fallout is the airborne radioactive dirt and fission products generated by a nuclear explosion.  Ground bursts create a great deal more fallout than air bursts, because the intense neutron blast causes soil to become radioactive, while the detonation and fireball lofts the radioactive dust high into the air.

Below, a video of Army troops advancing into a cloud of radioactive fallout with no radiation monitors or respiratory protection.  Detonation occurs at the 3:00 mark.

Irradiation Experiments:
Between 1960 and 1971, the Department of Defense funded non-consensual whole body radiation experiments on poor, black cancer patients, who were not told what was being done to them.  Patients were told that they were receiving a "treatment" that might cure their cancer, but the Pentagon was trying to determine the effects of high levels of radiation on the human body.  One of the doctors involved in the experiments, Robert Stone, was worried about litigation by the patients.  He referred to them only by their initials on the medical reports.  He did this so that, in his words, "there will be no means by which the patients can ever connect themselves up with the report", in order to prevent "either adverse publicity or litigation".

From 1960 to 1971, Dr. Eugene Saenger, funded by the Defense Atomic Support Agency, performed whole body radiation experiments on more than 90 poor, black, terminally ill cancer patients with inoperable tumors at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.  He forged consent forms, and did not inform the patients of the risks of irradiation.  The patients were given 100 or more rads (1 Gy) of whole-body radiation, which in many caused intense pain and vomiting.  Critics have questioned the medical rationale for this study, and contend that the main purpose of the research was to study the acute effects of radiation exposure.

From 1963 to 1973, a leading endocrinologist, Dr. Carl Heller, irradiated the testicles of Oregon and Washington prisoners.  In return for their participation, he gave them $5 a month, and $100 when they had to receive a vasectomy upon conclusion of the trial.  The surgeon who sterilized the men said that it was necessary to "keep from contaminating the general population with radiation-induced mutants".  Dr. Joseph Hamilton, one of the researchers who had worked with Heller on the experiments, said that the experiments "had a little of the Buchenwald touch".

In 1963, University of Washington researchers irradiated the testes of 232 prisoners to determine the effects of radiation on testicular function.  When these inmates later left prison and had children, at least four of them had offspring born with birth defects.  The exact number is unknown because researchers never followed up on the status of the subjects.

Here is a link to the final report issued by the ACHRE - the president's Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments

Lastly, it's probably safe to say that other countries besides the United States conducted similar research - but we will probably never know.

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