Inhuman radiation experiments
by John LaForge
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the declassification of top-secret studies, the “Human Radiation Experiments,” done over a period of 30 years, in which the US conducted radiation experiments on as many as 20,000 vulnerable US citizens.
Victims included civilians, prison inmates, federal workers, hospital patients, pregnant women, infants, developmentally disabled children and military personnel — most of them powerless, poor, sick, elderly or terminally ill. Eileen Welsome’s 1999 exposé The Plutonium Files: America’s Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War details “the unspeakable scientific trials that reduced thousands of men, women, and even children to nameless specimens.”
The program employed industry and academic scientists who used their hapless patients or wards to see the immediate and short-term effects of radioactive contamination — with everything from plutonium to radioactive arsenic. The human subjects were mostly poisoned without their knowledge or consent. An April 17, 1947 memo by Col. O.G. Haywood of the Army Corps of Engineers, reported by The Washington Post on Dec. 16, 1994, explained why the studies were classified: “It is desired that no document be released which refers to experiments with humans and might have adverse effect on public opinion or result in legal suits.”
In one Vanderbilt University study, 829 pregnant women were unknowingly fed radioactive iron. In another, 188 children were given radioactive iron-laced lemonade. Detailed by a 1986 report of the Subcommittee on Energy Conservation and Power, from 1963 to 1971, 67 inmates in Oregon and 64 prisoners in Washington had their testicles targeted with X-rays to see what doses made them sterile. At the Fernald State School, mentally retarded boys were fed radioactive iron and calcium but consent forms sent to parents didn’t mention radiation. A 1994 Minneapolis StarTribune report, “48 more human radiation experiments revealed,” noted psychiatric patients and infants were injected with radioactive iodine.
In a rare public condemnation, Clinton Administration Energy Sec. Hazel O’Leary confessed to being aghast at the conduct of the scientists. She told Newsweek in 1994: “I said, ‘Who were these people and why did this happen?’ The only thing I could think of was Nazi Germany.” None of the victims were provided follow-on medical care.
Scientists knew from the beginning of the 20th century that radiation could cause genetic and cell damage, cell death, radiation sickness and even death. A Presidential Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments was established in 1993 to investigate charges of unethical or criminal action by the experimenters. Its findings were published by Oxford University Press in 1996 as The Human Radiation Experiments.
The abuse of X-radiation “therapy” was also conducted throughout the ’40s and ’50s. Everything from ringworm to tonsillitis was “treated” with X-radiation because the long-term risks were unknown or considered tolerable. Joseph Mangano’s 2012 Mad Science: The Nuclear Power Experiment reveals that children were routinely exposed to alarmingly high doses of radiation from devices like “fluoroscopes” to measure foot size in shoe stores. Nasal radium capsules inserted in nostrils, used to attack hearing loss, are now thought to be the cause of cancers, thyroid and dental problems, immune dysfunction and more, although a National Cancer Institute fact sheet claims there is no clear link between nasal radium exposure and cancer.
Experiments Spread Cancer Risks Far and Wide
In large-scale experiments as late as 1985, the Energy Department deliberately produced reactor meltdowns that spewed radiation across Idaho and beyond. The Washington Post reported the meltdown July 10, 1985, quoting an Energy Department spokesman as saying, “It appears that the test was a complete success.” The Air Force conducted at least eight deliberate meltdowns in the Utah desert in 1959, dispersing 14 times the radiation released by the partial meltdown of Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979, an Associated Press reported in 1994.
The military even dumped radiation from planes and spread it across wide areas around and downwind of Oak Ridge, Tenn., Los Alamos, N.M., and Dugway, Utah. This “systematic radiation warfare program,” conducted between 1944 and 1961, was kept secret for decades. “Radiation bombs” thrown from USAF planes intentionally spread radiation “unknown distances” endangering the young and old alike. One such experiment doused Utah with 60 times more radiation than escaped the Three Mile Island accident, according to Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, who released a report on the program 20 years ago.
The Pentagon’s aboveground nuclear bomb tests of 1945-1962, totaling more than 200, and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, are not officially listed as radiation experiments. Yet between 250,000 and 500,000 U.S. military personnel were contaminated during their compulsory participation in the bomb tests and the post-war occupation of Japan.
Documents uncovered by the Advisory Committee show that the military knew there were serious radioactive fallout risks from its Nevada Test Site bomb blasts. The generals decided not to use a safer site in Florida, where fallout would have blown out to sea. “The officials determined it was probably not safe, but went ahead anyway,” Pat Fitzgerald, a scientist on the committee staff, told The New York Times March 15, 1995. In addition, Dr. Gioacchino Failla, a Columbia University scientist who worked for the Atomic Energy Commission, was quoted in the same 1995 report as saying, “We should take some risk… we are faced with a war in which atomic weapons will undoubtedly be used, and we have to have some information about these things.”
With the National Cancer Institute’s 1997 finding that all US citizens in the country at the time of the bomb tests were contaminated with fallout, it’s clear we did face war with atomic weapons — our own.
John LaForge works for the nuclear watchdog group Nukewatch in Wisconsin, edits its Quarterly newsletter, and writes forPeaceVoice.