Facts on radiation testing on Americans known but unnoticed for years

January 11, 1994|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Staff Writer

When Energy Secretary Hazel R. O'Leary was asked about a 1945 government experiment in which 18 Americans were injected with plutonium to set exposure limits for the radioactive substance, she decried the test as "repugnant" and pledged to release more information on the experiment.

Within weeks of her comments in November, Ms. O'Leary promised an investigation of other human experiments by the department's predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission. The White House then said other Cabinet secretaries would follow her lead as reports of Cold War-era radiation testing of uninformed test subjects filled the nation's newspapers and airwaves.

In 1986, the very same news -- a 95-page congressional report titled "American Nuclear Guinea Pigs: Three Decades of Radiation Experiments on U.S. Citizens" -- provoked little of the response being generated today.

The question one might ask is why.

While stricter regulations on the testing of humans have increased sensitivity toward such experiments and patient-physician relationships have become more regimented, scientists, medical ethicists and political observers most commonly attribute the change in attitude to one thing: a change in presidential administrations.

When a congressional panel headed by Rep. Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, issued that startling report seven years ago, Ronald Reagan, a friend of the nuclear and defense industries, was in the White House.

"It fell on deaf ears," said an aide to Mr. Markey. "This was the height of the Reagan cold war and the nuclear war buildup. Their response was, 'This doesn't happen anymore so why worry about it?' "

But the regulations on the use of humans in drug trials and experiments are no more strict today than they were in the mid-1980s. And yet, Ms. O'Leary has embraced a policy of openness with regard to the agency's history of involvement in such experiments. That openness has spread throughout the Clinton White House, where a panel of officials representing some of the government's most sensitive agencies -- including the Department of Defense -- will meet weekly to ensure a prompt response and review of the government's activities in these areas.

"I couldn't give this story away for eight years," said Dr. David S. Egilman, a Rhode Island physician who reviewed human

radiation experiments while doing work for an atomic workers union in the mid-1980s.

"If you guys spent a little time writing about what Clinton does above the neck instead of below the neck, you'll see he's appointed some honest people who report their findings honestly. You have to give Clinton credit."

Dr. Egilman also attributes the attention to what he calls "the Joey Buttafuoco phenomenon:" As the number of media reports of human experimentation increased, more news outlets felt a need to cover the story. Although a series of articles by the Albuquerque Journal in November sparked the recent interest in the experiments, information about the tests was in the public domain prior to the 1986 Markey report and in scientific journals as long ago as the 1970s.

"Everything reaches a critical mass and everybody has got to do the story," said Dr. Egilman, an internist who also teaches at Brown University. "It's kind of like a nuclear reaction. If you get a few uranium atoms bouncing off one another, you don't get a reaction. It's a story that has 'legs' because it has both a local and a national angle."

What surprised Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is the fact that the Clinton administration did not follow the presidential practice of defending the presidency. Mr. Hess, who has written books on the press and the presidency, cited the example of the Nixon administration's defending the Pentagon Papers case.

"Why did he grab onto an albatross like that? Partly because it's about the presidency and you're the president and you defend previous presidents," Mr. Hess said, referring to Richard M. Nixon. "That hasn't happened [here]. Part of the usefulness of changing administrations is that we can have a fresh look at government and its past actions."

To Dr. Arjun Makhijani, executive director of the Takoma Park-based Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, Ms. O'Leary's response on the government-sponsored experiments has historic implications.

"The head of the nuclear weapons establishment has gotten up before the country and had the honesty and courage to say, 'We did experiments on some of the people we were pledged to protect without their consent, and these wrongs should be righted,' " he said.

But, he noted, Secretary O'Leary's comments may not only be altruistic.

"She recognizes for her to make progress on these [nuclear-related] issues her department needs to be trusted," said Dr. Makhijani. "And, unlike her predecessors, she recognizes the important connection between telling the truth and being trusted."

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