March 29, 1997 in Nation/World

Rules Protect Human Guinea Pigs U.S. Also Pays Some Victims Of Secret Tests In ‘40s, ‘50s

New York Times
 

President Clinton has established new rules meant to preclude any more government-financed secret experiments on unwitting human subjects using radioactive, chemical or other dangerous materials, the White House announced Friday.

Officials of the Justice and Energy departments also said Friday that they had made progress in settling some cases involving such experiments. In those cases, dating from the 1940s and 1950s, government researchers injected civilians with plutonium or uranium without their informed consent.

Nearly all the subjects of the experiments, who were adults when the doses were given 40 years ago, are long dead, and the settlements have taken the form of payments to their families, generally in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Scores of other victims or their families are still trying to collect damages, however.

“Compassion and concern are at the core of our response to human radiation experiments,” Energy Secretary Federico Pena said in an announcement at the White House.

Sixteen cases have been settled; one is in the late stages of settlement; one family declined to participate; and one subject could not be found, government officials said. That means, Pena said, that the government is nearly finished with what he called the most egregious cases, the ones in which the experiments had been kept secret from the public and the victims “for the purposes of avoiding liability or embarrassment to the government.”

But the government is still defending at least five lawsuits, with about 80 victims identified and hundreds of others who may come forward.

Under the new rules, Pena said, informed consent will be required; the sponsor of the experiment will be identified to the subject; the subject will be told the experiment is classified; and permanent records will be kept. Government agencies will report annually on whether such experiments are in progress; none is now, “as far as we can determine,” he said.

The cases that are still outstanding include studies at Oregon State Prison and at Washington State Prison from 1963 to 1971, in which prisoners’ testicles were irradiated to learn what doses made them sterile. They also include experiments involving mentally retarded children at the Walter E. Fernald State School in Waltham, Mass., who, from 1946 to 1956, were told they were joining a “science club,” and were given radioactive material in cereals.

Another lawsuit involves Vanderbilt University, where 820 pregnant women were given small doses of radioactive iron from 1945 to 1947. And during the 1960s and 1970s, subjects at the University of Cincinnati and three other universities were exposed to radiation over their entire bodies to measure the effects.

The latter case, which extended into the early 1970s, includes 45 “active living plaintiffs,” said E. Cooper Brown, a lawyer who represents them, and another 45 yet to be discovered.

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