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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. Early pioneers did not appreciate the danger of such experiments and quite casually exposed experimenters and subjects to such radiation. In recent years, the danger is well-understood and experiments are carefully designed with close attention to medical ethics and safety for everyone involved. However, there have been a number of experiments that may constitute unethical human experimentation.


Plutonium experiments

During and after the end of World War II, scientists working on the Manhattan Project and other nuclear weapons research projects conducted studies of the effects of plutonium on laboratory animals and human subjects. In the case of human subjects, this involved injecting solutions containing (typically) five micrograms of plutonium into hospital patients who were thought either to be terminally ill or to have a life expectancy of less than ten years due either to age or chronic disease condition. The injections were made without the informed consent of those patients. [1]

In her book, The Plutonium Files: America's Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War, Eileen Welsome, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for The Albuquerque Tribune, revealed the extent of the experiments conducted on unwitting participants. At the Fernald school in Massachusetts, an institution for "feeble-minded" boys, 73 disabled children were fed oatmeal containing radioactive calcium and other radioisotopes. Immediately after World War II, 829 pregnant mothers in Tennessee received what they were told were "vitamin drinks" that would improve the health of their babies, but were, in fact, mixtures containing radioactive iron, to determine how fast the radioiosotope crossed into the placenta. Other incidents included an eighteen-year-old woman at an upstate New York hospital, expecting to be treated for a pituitary gland disorder, who was injected with plutonium.[2] Such experiments are now considered to be a serious breach of medical ethics.

According to artist/activist Sandra Marlow, American orphanages were also allegedly used to conduct US government radiation experiments. She claims that radioactive substances were given to orphans, many of whom allegedly later died of cancer.[3]

Fallout Research

In 1954, American scientists conducted fallout exposure research on the citizens of the Marshall Islands after the Castle Bravo nuclear test in Project 4.1. The Bravo test was detonated upwind of Rongelap Atoll and the residents were exposed to serious radiation levels, up to 180 rads. 236 Marshallese were exposed, some developed severe radiation sickness and one died, long term effects included birth defects, "jellyfish" babies, and thyroid problems.[4]

The decision to fire the Bravo bomb under the prevailing winds was made by Dr Alvin C. Graves (1912-66), the Scientific Director of Operation Castle. Dr Graves had total authority over firing the weapon, above that of the military Commander of Operation Castle. Dr Graves had himself received an exposure of 200 Roentgens in the 1946 Los Alamos accident in which his personal friend, Dr Louis Slotin, died from radiation exposure. Dr Graves appears in the widely available film of the earlier 1952 test Mike, which examines the last minute fallout decisions [5]. The narrator (Western actor Reed Hadley) is filmed aboard the control ship in that film which shows the final conference. Hadley points out that 20,000 people live in the potential area of the fallout. He asks the control panel scientist if the test can be aborted and is told yes but it would ruin all their preparations in setting up timed measuring instruments in the race against the Russians. In Mike the fallout correctly landed north of the inhabited area, but in the 1954 Bravo test, there was a lot of wind shear and the wind which was blowing north the day before the test steadily veered towards the east.

In addition, the yield of Bravo, the first ever American lithium deuteride (solid fusion fuel) bomb, was twice the maximum expected figure (because lithium-7 was unexpectedly split to give fusionable tritium, in addition to the predicted effect of lithium-6). The combination of unexpectedly high yield plus the wind veering (which was already in progress even before Bravo was fired), contaminated the inhabited islands to the east of the detonation. It was not a deliberate radiation experiment, although questions do remain over the reason the emergency messages from US weather personnel, who were contaminated on Rongerik like the Marshallese, were ignored for two days after the test. Once the heavy fallout on the inhabited islands was discovered, all of the people were evacuated promptly and regularly checked for signs of injury.

Project Sunshine

Early in the Cold War, researchers in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia attempted to determine just 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 they would have had a full opportunity to absorb the new contaminants.

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.

The Outcome

On January 15, 1994, President Bill Clinton formed the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments (ACHRE). This 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: [1].

See also


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Further reading

  • The Plutonium Files: America's secret medical experiments in the Cold War, by Eileen Welsome, Dial Press, c1999, New York, N.Y., ISBN 0-385-31402-7
  • The Treatment: The Story of Those Who Died in the Cincinnati Radiation Tests, by Martha Stephens, Duke University Press, c2002, Durham, N.C., ISBN 0-8223-2811-9
  • Holly M. Barker, Bravo for the Marshallese: Regaining Control in a Post-Nuclear, Post-Colonial World, Wadsworth, 2004. ISBN 0-534-61326-8
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Human_radiation_experiments". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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