Radiation tests on humans continue, O'Leary says

January 26, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary says that the government continues to sponsor radiation experiments involving human subjects but that none is being done in secret or without the informed consent of participants.

The acknowledgment came in testimony yesterday before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which is investigating radiation experiments performed by the government -- often on unwitting participants -- in the 1940s and '50s. Ms. O'Leary told committee members that the full extent and nature of those experiments probably would not be determined for at least a year. But she added that all information eventually would be made public.

In response to intense questioning, Ms. O'Leary said that the Energy Department now is either funding or providing facilities for between 200 and 260 experiments, about 40 percent of which are believed to involve radiation. Most of the current experimentation involves the use of low tracer doses in nuclear medicine research, she said.

None of the experiments were being conducted in secrecy or in violation of ethical guidelines -- in effect since 1991 -- that govern the terms of such experiments on humans.

"We're pretty certain that everyone is following the spirit and intent" of the ethics guidelines, she said.

Ms. O'Leary said that as a precautionary measure President Clinton will issue a directive this week ordering an immediate halt to any classified experiments involving radiation and human subjects. But she said she did not believe any such experimentation was under way.

"As far as we have been able to ascertain, the department is not conducting any experiments that violate medical, ethical standards or the Nuremberg codes," she said.

The hearing is the first in what is expected to be several congressional inquiries into disclosures that unsuspecting subjects were used as human guinea pigs for government-sponsored radiation experiments during the Cold War.

The inquiry was called by committee Chairman John Glenn, D-Ohio, who said he wanted assurances that there were no "rogue operators out there" who might still be conducting unethical experiments with harmful substances.

Ms. O'Leary promised that information on all the experimentation -- past and present -- would be released as soon as it is assembled. But she added that investigators probably would need a full year to track down all the details.

Similar searches are under way at the departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services and at the CIA to determine whether any such experiments were performed.

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