Slow born on the atomic fast track

In February this year, the United States government publicly admitted to carrying out nuclear radiation tests on completely innocent human guinea pigs

By Rita Anand
Published: Sunday 30 April 1995

Slow born on the atomic fast track

-- (Credit: Malaya Karamakar)The raising of the Iron Curtain has forced into the open some of the darkest and most damning secrets of the Cold War. Both the US and the erstwhile Soviet Union used nuclear energy as a pointer, and a warning, to military muscle. And both embraced a radical, violent technology without assessing its possible impact on Earth's environment and its people.

As the implications of this misanthropic indiscrimination sink in, an alarmed Russian government has begun to admit to its anti-environment foolhardiness. As if in political penance, it has asked the United States for help in cleaning up its house. On its part, a seemingly contrite United States has admitted to having used prisoners, the elderly and children as unwitting guinea pigs in radiation experiments.

ON FEBRUARY 11, 1995, the US government publicly admitted that during the Cold War it had conducted 154 radiation experiments involving about 9,000 people -- including prisoners, mental patients and children. The fear of a nuclear holocaust and the massive casualties which would follow prompted the government to sanction such tests. Even GIs were turned into unwitting guinea pigs.

This shocking confession was made by the United States Energy Department. Following a series of disclosures by Albuquerque Tribune reporter Eileen Welsome, on plutonium experiments in the '40s, President Bill Clinton formed an Advisory Commission on Human Experiments in January 1994. The Energy department is part of this commission, and is leading a search for records of radiation experiments involving humans between 1945 and late 1970. The panel unearthed some startling facts.

A secret Atomic Medicine Division of the Veteran's Administration (VA), formed in 1947, may have been involved in exposing US servicemen to radiation during early post-World War II atomic bomb tests. The purpose of the atomic medicine programme was to teach nuclear preparedness techniques. The VA unit created a guide, used in the '50s, for a course in radiobiological defense.

The unit was set up shortly after Operation Crossroads -- involving the detonation of 2 atomic bombs at Hawaii's Bikini Atoll in 1946 -- in which thousands of US troops were exposed to dangerous levels of radioactive material. On January 10, 1994, the VA released documents that showed that in the '40s it carried out radiation experiments in 33 of its hospitals, where patients were given food mixed with radioactive substances.

The Atomic Veterans, formed in 1979, is composed of 4,000 former troops exposed to radiation during postwar nuclear explosions. They are demanding a full report on the exposure of US troops at bomb test sites.

Documents released by the Defense Department indicate that as early as 1947, the Atomic Energy Commission had a policy in place for conducting radiation tests on humans. "There are whole chapters in bioethics textbooks which will be written on this," says Jonathan Moreno, a member of the Committee from the State University of New York's Health Science Centre at Brooklyn.

A Los Alamos report states that in 1960, B-52 Superfortress crews swallowed gamma film capsules and wore special lithium-shielded gamma film badges before flying through radioactive clouds when measuring the radioactivity of nuclear explosions.

In 1965, the Atomic Energy Commission, the forerunner of the Energy Department, staged a nuclear rocket "accident" in the Nevada desert that hurled a radioactive cloud of nuclear material more than 200 miles to Los Angeles. Part of the rocket's atomic warhead was vaporised so that scientists could study the environmental impact of radiation. Although estimated radiation doses beyond the test site were below limits set by the US Environmental Protection agency, more people were exposed because the cloud travelled farther than expected.

Civilians were also made unwitting guinea pigs. Workers at the Ohio-based Fernald nuclear weapons plant, which processes uranium, charged in a 1990 class action suit that National Lead of Ohio Inc, an Energy Department contractor that managed the plant between 1951 and 1985, created conditions which exposed 6,000 workers -- about 4,000 of whom are still alive -- to excessive radiation levels, causing high rates of leukaemia and other cancers.

Angellino Gallina, a retired Fernald employee, described in testimony how he was doused with radioactive ore and acid during a 1955 accident at the plant. National Lead managers sent him to a first aid station for 2 weeks. Workers also testified that throughout National Lead's management of the plant, its executives failed to warn workers of any danger from radiation exposure.

On July 30, 1994, the Energy Department agreed to a US $20 million settlement to compensate employees. It marked the first time that the Department agreed to compensate employees of its weapons facilities for radiation exposure.

A US $15 million compensation fund has been established for National Lead workers. The amount of individual awards will be based on the length of employment at the facility rather than specific injuries that may have resulted from radiation exposure. The settlement also calls for establishing a US $5 million fund for lifetime medical monitoring of Fernald workers for possible long-term effects of radiation exposure. Each worker will receive an initial US $800-worth physical examination and annual checkup.

An investigation by Cliff Honicker, director of the American Health Studies Project of the Commission on Religion in Appalachia, makes for a chilling story. Between 1949 and 1957, the Medical College of Virginia (MCV) ran a secret metabolic lab where doctors conducted a series of potentially dangerous experiments on hundreds of mostly poor black Americans. In the Special Burns unit set up with army funds, patients who had been severely burnt in accidents were unknowingly submitted to radiation when they were brought in for free medical treatment.

At MCV and 2 sister hospitals -- Dooley, a charitable hospital for black children and St Philip, a hospital for black adults -- about 100 patients and volunteers were exposed to radioactivity for "investigational purposes". The doctors injected radioactive isotopes into patients between the 6 months and 90 years of age. The doctors knew that the combined effect of burns and radiation led to higher mortality rates in animals and could be equally disastrous on humans.

The principal investigator, Everett Idris Evans, a military surgeon, had set up the burn unit with army funding to study the metabolic effects of thermal injury in animals and thermal and irradiation problems in dogs and humans. By comparing the results of the 2, Evans hoped to find ways to quickly distinguish between lethal and non-lethal burns and to develop better single-piece field dressings for such burns and to find the best course of antibiotics to stop infections.

Evans initially experimented on dogs. He subjected the dogs to 1st, 2nd and 3rd degree burns. After this, he irradiated the dogs to create the type of radiation exposure that people would suffer in a nuclear explosion. Evans discovered that even though dogs received a non-lethal dose of radiation, they had a 5 times higher death rate than dogs who were only subjected to burns. Evans then injected almost-terminal human burn patients in the Special Burn units at Dooley, St Philip and MCV hospitals with radioactive isotopes that he knew would attach to their red blood cells.

He also attempted to study the energy level needed to inflict 1st, 2nd and 3rd degree burns. To do this, Evans and his colleagues set up an intensely hot army searchlight in a secret lab at MCV, focused the beam to a narrow point of light and then simulated the "flash burn" an individual could receive from a nuclear blast. He inflicted half-inch square burns on more than 100 people. This was supposed to determine the exact energy level needed to induce moderate to severe burns. Working with physicists, Evans then calculated how many people would die from a 20-kiloton nuclear bomb in a typical US city.

Evans died in 1954. His colleague B W Haynes acknowledged both the burn and radiation experiments, but claimed that no one was injured as a result. "We finally got to the point of making a few small wounds on patient volunteers," says Haynes, now 76. "The burns were never large. They never threatened any of the patients."

Haynes denied that he and Evans inflicted 3rd degree burns. "They were," he says, "burns that heal with proper treatment." Haynes confirmed the use of radioisotopes on the patients, but said they were used for therapeutic purposes.

"The army has released a list of 30 army-funded human experiments," says Honicker. "Among them are experiments similar to Evans'. But there are no references to Evans' experiments which seems odd since the army was his chief funder. They have also been unable to locate the names of any of the victims."

Fears have been expressed by people investigating the history of radiation tests during the Cold War that unclassified documents which might provide clues may not be forthcoming. Says Honicker, "Perhaps the only way to get at the truth is for everyone with knowledge of these experiments to pool their resources together so that we can have the whole picture of this sorry hidden chapter in American history."

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