Newly found Fort Howard files show difficulty in finding data on radiation tests

February 18, 1994|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Sun Staff Writer

When the Department of Veterans Affairs recently asked its facilities around the nation about decades-old research with radioactive materials, hospital officials at Fort Howard confidently checked off the "no" box in its response to the survey and sent it back to Washington.

Administrators at the isolated veterans hospital on the eastern edge of Baltimore County had checked, they said, and could find no evidence that its doctors used radioactive material in treating patients 40 years ago.

But they were wrong. Doctors at Fort Howard, working in a small brick building next to the main hospital building on North Point Road and following medical procedures accepted then and now, were among the researcher who used radioisotopes in treatment and diagnosis of patients at the onset of the nuclear medicine age.

Now, Fort Howard officials have again begun searching their files after learning from a reporter that a 1951 U.S. Atomic Energy Commission report released to the press mentions their small and so-far innocuous role during a period when, it has been revealed, the U.S. government carried out human radiation experiments.

"At this point, we're still digging," said Christopher L. Howell, the acting medical center director. "We were a little bit surprised."

But Fort Howard's inability to find records related to the research underscores the difficulties that federal agencies have in meeting the White House mandate to document government-sponsored radiation research on humans that started after World War II when the isotopes -- radioactive atoms used to track chemical or biological processes -- became generally available.

Government pledge

The all-out attempt by the government came in the wake of Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary's pledge to compensate anyone unwittingly subjected to or harmed by research like that disclosed last November in an Albuquerque Tribune series on a 1945 government experiment in which 18 Americans were injected with plutonium.

A panel has been convened to review the government-sponsored research -- including possible projects financed by the old Atomic Energy Commission, the Defense Department, the CIA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Health and Human Services and Veterans Affairs and determine who may have been wronged and deserve compensation.

But locating documents on the experiments isn't easy. For example, of 168 VA hospitals, 54 had radioisotope units from 1947 to 1961.

The Department of Veterans Affairs says only 20 have found documents that show how the research was done and only seven have found any names of patients.

"This is not a situation where we can go to the dark cellars or attics of the department or its agencies, find a box labeled 'Human Radiation Experiments,' dust it off and release the documents inside," Dr. Harold P. Smith, assistant to the Secretary of Defense for atomic energy, recently told a congressional committee.

And even in cases where the government has admitted wrongdoing, such as the "downwinders" in Utah -- who were subjected to nuclear fallout from weapons tests -- and a group of Navajo Indians in New Mexico who mined uranium, compensation still comes slowly, their lawyers say.

Many victims have been fighting in the courts and Congress for more than a decade.

Still, Stewart Udall, a former Interior secretary in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations who represents the Navajo miners and the "downwinders," applauds Ms. O'Leary for her initiative.

'Moral framework'

"It is the first time in history that a person in that department has confronted the issue in a moral framework," Mr. Udall said. "The administration deserves a lot of credit for that. The question is: Is anyone listening?"

The controversy surrounding the government-sponsored radiation experiments -- many of which had been detailed in a 1986 congressional report -- has divided the scientific community, putting prominent researchers on the defensive about charges that they used radioactive isotopes in unscrupulous ways during the Cold War.

Four researchers who testified at a congressional hearing earlier this month said that no patients suffered harm in any of their research because the radiation doses were less than a routine X-ray of that time.

The doctors said they were concerned that pioneering work at VA hospitals -- such as using radioactive isotopes to measure hormones in the blood and other body fluids which led to better treatment of diabetes -- could be tainted by ensuing, unfounded hysteria.

"We felt we were making great discoveries for humanity and helping advance medical understanding," said Dr. James A. Pittman Jr., who was the director of the radioisotope unit at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Birmingham, Ala., in the 1950s.

"I don't think we will find any scandal in the VA in this inquiry."

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