Guinea Pig in a Radiation Experiment

March 02, 1994|By JOEL I. CEHN

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA — Oakland, California.--In 1968, I was an undergraduate student at a college in New England. From friends, I heard of an easy way to make $500. Just become a medical research subject.

Several of us volunteered. One day I was told that I would be spending a few hours in the lab. I would be hooked up to tubes and various gadgets, then injected with a radioactive tracer. Being a physics major, I had done some work with radiation, and I went through with the test.

At the time, this test did not seem that extraordinary. I hadn't thought about my experience as a human guinea pig until the news stories about ''plutonium experiments'' recently surfaced.

Was the experiment justified? Was I a victim? Do I deserve compensation?

Well, not only did I finish my studies in physics, I ended up specializing in radiation physics. Radioactive materials have been vitally important to me as an adult. They've been my livelihood as a consultant on radiation safety in industry, medicine and the environment.

But I also care especially about the benefits they've helped bring about.

Nearly all new drugs and medical breakthroughs are made possible by radioactive tracers. They're called tracers for two reasons: They trace the path of a drug or compound through the subject's system, and only trace amounts are used.

This was the technique used on me in the 1968 study. It involves little or no risk to the subject, and provides a great deal of information. It allows scientists to look inside -- literally -- the biochemical reactions that occur in our bodies.

I can safely say that without this technique, the disciplines of biochemistry, cellular anatomy and molecular biology so important to the diagnosis and treatment of disease would not have evolved to their present state of development.

Still, I'm appalled at the callous disregard for subjects' rights that apparently occurred in some of the postwar research. Even if the experiments involved minimal risk, they should have proceeded only with the informed consent of the subjects.

The information I was given in 1968 was skimpy at best. But I knew, in general, what was going on. I don't know whether earlier studies followed this rule, but I can't see how informed consent could be given by subjects who were mentally impaired.

We also have to recognize the huge difference between tracer experiments and tests seeking to gauge human tolerance of newly identified agents.

Even using 1950s standards, it's hard to believe people were exposed to radioactive elements, like plutonium. While tracer experiments use tiny amounts of radioactivity, tolerance tests can involve large and dangerous doses. If these actually occurred, it is this group of tests that should be pursued and exposed.

Moreover, it wasn't even necessary to perform these tests. Over the years, we've identified many groups of people who were accidentally or inappropriately exposed to radiation. These groups have been studied and provide the knowledge that I use today in judging the safety of a particular level of radiation.

For example, people who worked with radium in the 1920s were later studied. Those who accidentally ingested or inhaled radium experienced higher rates of certain diseases, particularly bone cancer.

Before the days of ultrasound, pregnant women were often examined using X-rays. By studying these women and their children, we later learned that the fetus is particularly sensitive to radiation.

It may turn out that some people were injected with uranium, plutonium and other radioactive elements only to look at the behavior of these elements in the body. This would involve only trace amounts of the elements and would greatly reduce the risk.

If this turned out to be the case, I still couldn't forgive the scientists who sought out uninformed subjects and kept them in the dark.

Would I volunteer for medical research again? I would, as many already have and others will do. My ability to gauge the risks is admittedly better than most. I knew I was being injected with a naturally radioactive form of water (tritium), not with plutonium.

But I also appreciate the importance of radioactive tracers in the advancement of medicine and biomedical research. We can and should continue to lead the way in these fields, respecting people's rights as we go.

3' Joel I. Cehn is a health physicist.

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