Former resident of school says he wasn't told tests involved radioactivity

December 29, 1993|By Boston Globe

BOSTON -- Louis Frankowski, 53, a former Fernald State School resident, recalls being a member of the Fernald Science Club in the 1950s and having blood drawn weekly, but he says he doesn't remember being told what membership meant.

Being a member of the club, according to interviews and Fernald documents, meant participation in a Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University nutrition study involving radioactive milk and iron supplements.

Mr. Frankowski lived at the Waltham, Mass., school for the mentally retarded for 26 years, from 1950, when he was institutionalized at the age of 10 by his father, until 1976, after a federal court order released him and hundreds of others deemed to be kept there unconstitutionally. He now lives independently near Boston and works at a factory.

"They didn't tell me about radioactivity," said Mr. Frankowski, who was born with cerebral palsy, a disability that results from damage to the brain before or during birth. "If they did, I would have remembered."

Mr. Frankowski was among the dozens of boys who were invited by the MIT's department of food technology to a Dec. 22, 1952, dinner at the Smith House on Memorial Drive. The dinner and a present were the reward for participating in the study using radioactive isotopes to trace the body's absorption of minerals, according to interviews and documents.

The study began at Fernald in 1946, with 17 adolescent boys being exposed to between 544 and 1,024 millirem of radioactive iron over the course of seven meals, according to figures from an unpublished report on the project. On average, Americans receive about 300 millirem of radiation from natural sources each year.

In another phase of the study, using radioactive calcium, researchers exposed the bones of 19 children in one sitting to 35 millirem of radiation. Over a lifetime, the average American will receive 110 millirem of radiation on his bones from nuclear weapons testing fallout.

At least some of the consent forms sent to parents and guardians did not mention the use of radioactive isotopes, an omission that medical ethicists today say violated the standards of the time.

In recalling his membership in the Fernald Science Club, Mr. Frankowski said, "You know what they used to do? They used to give you needles a lot. I didn't like doing it. They gave you candy every time they took blood out of you."

He remembered Fernald's chief physician at the time, Dr. Clemens E. Benda, standing by while nurses drew his blood just about every Friday during the several months that he was a member of the club.

Another former Fernald resident who worked in the lab where the teen-agers in the experiment had blood work and other tests done said lab officials never told him about experiments with radioactive isotopes -- or anything else.

"They didn't tell you anything. You were a retard," said this former patient, who asked not to be identified.

Yesterday, Energy Secretary Hazel R. O'Leary said people exposed to radiation in government experiments should be compensated.

A hot line has been set up to allow survivors to contact the Energy Department. The number is (800) 493-2998.

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