It Happened Here

Article excerpt

Energy Secretary Hazel R. O'Leary, prodded by recent articles in the Albuquerque Tribune reporting that America's nuclear laboratories and medical institutions had injected medical patients with radioactive substances to see how they would react, has vowed to review and release information on more than 800 experiments done since 1945. She says the effort meets "an obligation to put the public's mind at rest and expose things that need exposing."

The tests certainly need exposing, but the public's mind is unlikely to be put at rest. Instead, the information that has been released so far is nothing less than shocking and outrageous. Though less was known four decades ago about radiation, its dangers were sufficiently understood to make the experiments reckless.

Worried at the prospect of nuclear war, government laboratories and medical institutions felt they needed to know how soldiers and civilians would react to exposure to radiation. And trace exposure was then considered so inconsequential that even shoe stores used X-ray devices to gauge customers' shoe sizes.

Still, those selected for injection with various kinds of radioactive substances, along with what they weren't told about the nature of the experiments, suggest dubious ethics on the part of the testers. Of course, fully informing subjects about the risks of experiments was less common decades ago than today, no matter what the experiment.

Nevertheless, to irradiate the testicles of prisoners in Oregon and Washington prisons or give radiation-dosed milk to mentally retarded boys at a school in Massachusetts was to prey on the weak and the captive. Nor were follow-ups done to determine whether the subjects were harmed. Worse was injecting seven newborns with radioactive iodine in a Tennessee hospital or giving radioactive iron to 800 pregnant women at Vanderbilt University. …