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Radiation used on retarded Postwar experiments done at Fernald school:[City Edition]
Scott Allen, Globe StaffBoston Globe (pre-1997 Fulltext).  Boston, Mass.:Dec 26, 1993.  p. 1 

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Radiation used on retarded Postwar experiments done at Fernald school:[City Edition]
Scott Allen, Globe StaffBoston Globe (pre-1997 Fulltext).  Boston, Mass.:Dec 26, 1993.  p. 1 

 

Author(s):

Scott Allen, Globe Staff

Section:

METRO/REGION

Publication title:

Boston Globe (pre-1997 Fulltext). Boston, Mass.: Dec 26, 1993.  pg. 1

Source type:

Newspaper

ISSN:

07431791

ProQuest document ID:

61847047

Text Word Count

1509

Document URL:

http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?did=61847047&Fmt=3&clientId=1531&RQT=309&VName=PQD

 

Abstract (Document Summary)

Records at the Fernald State School list them as "morons," but the researchers from MIT and Harvard University called the retarded teen-age boys who took part in their radiation experiments "the Fernald Science Club."

[Robert S. Harris] told Malcolm Farrell, superintendent of Fernald at the time, that the boys would be eating radioactive food. But Farrell's 1946 letter to parents and guardians, still in a file at the Fernald library, makes no mention of radiation. "We are considering the selection of a group of our brighter patients, including your son, to receive a special diet rich in" iron and vitamins, the form letter reads.

Even if the radiation levels were trivial, mental health experts today say that the Fernald experiments probably could not be repeated. Today, human experiments must win approval from two independent review boards that force researchers to consider alternatives and calculate the risks. And in any human tests, subjects or their guardians must have all the facts before they can agree to participate.

Full Text (1509   words)

Copyright Boston Globe Newspaper Dec 26, 1993

WALTHAM -- Records at the Fernald State School list them as "morons," but the researchers from MIT and Harvard University called the retarded teen-age boys who took part in their radiation experiments "the Fernald Science Club."

In the name of science, members of the club would eat cereal mixed with radioactive milk for breakfast or digest a series of iron supplements that gave them the radiation-equivalent of at least 50 chest X-rays. From 1946 to 1956, scores of retarded teen-agers consumed radioactive food to help the researchers better understand the human digestive process.

"There is absolutely no ground for caution regarding the quantities of radioactive substances which we would use in our experiments," Massachusetts Institute of Technology biochemist Robert S. Harris assured Fernald's superintendent in a letter proposing the research in December 1945. At least some consent forms sent home to parents or guardians do not mention radiation.

The experiments at the Fernald School, which almost certainly would not be permitted today, are one of the darker corners of Massachusetts' atomic legacy. Along with pioneering the field of nuclear medicine, some of the state's leading academic institutions and hospitals also subjected the terminally ill, the elderly and others to radiation doses that are considered unsafe today, often with no possible benefit to the test subjects.

Though never secret -- researchers published the results of the Fernald studies in scholarly journals -- details of the research effort, funded partly by Quaker Oats Co. and the US Atomic Energy Commission, have sat in a jumble of boxes in the Fernald School library until now.

The Albuquerque Tribune of New Mexico sparked new interest in human radiation experiments last month with harrowing accounts of prisoners, mental patients and even pregnant women who were given plutonium and other radioactive material in government-supported research after World War II. US Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary has started a federal review of human radiation experiments, promising to declassify government documents that shed light on the subject.

"It's very important that the public begin to see that secrecy at bottom is what lets this happen," said David Rush of Tufts University's Human Nutrition Research Center, who has written a book on radiation exposure to defense workers. He called the Fernald experiments "something of which American medicine should be ashamed."

But Constantine Maletskos, a former MIT researcher who studied how teen-agers at Fernald metabolized radioactive calcium, defended the experiments, saying they yielded important information about nutrition.

"I feel just as good about it today as the day I did it," he said, "The attitude of the scientists was we're going to do this in the best way possible. . . . They would get the minimum radiation they could possibly get and have the experiment work."

The Fernald participants, who were between 15 and 17 years old at the time, would be in their 50s and 60s today.

Maletskos does not know of any follow-up health studies on the Fernald subjects, but he maintains to this day that the children were not harmed because the radiation levels were so low. However, other radiation researchers, such as Richard Clapp of JSI in Boston, an epidemiology research group, believe there is no such thing as a safe level.

The experiments at Fernald grew out of nutritionists' concern that a diet heavy in cereal might slow down the body's ability to digest two important minerals, iron and calcium. The best way to study this problem, team leader Harris concluded, was to use a radioactive form of the two minerals, which are easy to detect in blood and human waste.

Harris told Malcolm Farrell, superintendent of Fernald at the time, that the boys would be eating radioactive food. But Farrell's 1946 letter to parents and guardians, still in a file at the Fernald library, makes no mention of radiation. "We are considering the selection of a group of our brighter patients, including your son, to receive a special diet rich in" iron and vitamins, the form letter reads.

Authorities at Fernald referred questions to the Department of Mental Retardation, which now runs the school. State officials last week said they were unaware of the tests, and they said such work would be extremely unlikely today.

"We should always be concerned that these things can happen to a population that's been devalued. We have to continually have safeguards in place to reduce the chance that it will ever happen again," said mental retardation Commissioner Philip Campbell.

The federal review is likely to involve a number of research institutions in Massachusetts, which received more shipments of radioactive isotopes for research than any other state except New York from 1946 to 1951, according to federal records.

Much of the radioactivity was used for health-related research -- for example, MIT discovered that radioactive paint used on luminous watches was making workers sick. But sometimes the subjects of the research were little more than "human guinea pigs," as US Rep. Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Malden, said in a 1986 report. Markey found that MIT researchers studying the watch workers' plight fed 20 elderly people radium to see how it passed through their bodies. He also found that Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston injected radioactive uranium into terminally ill patients in the 1950s to measure its effect on kidneys.

A US Atomic Energy Commission index of where it shipped radioactive isotopes, obtained by the Center for Atomic Radiation Studies of Brookline, suggests that human experimentation in Massachusetts may have been more widespread. The index, which covers 1946 to 1951, lists experiments at the Framingham Veterans Administration hospital, tests of "the long-term toxic effects of radio-iodine" at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, as well as the research at Fernald.

"What we are seeing in the local experimentation is that sometimes the face of evil can turn out to be authority infected by opportunism and arrogance," said Dan Bernstein, president of the Center for Atomic Radiation Studies, a small, nonprofit group that follows use of radioactive material.

But Philip Reilly of the Shriver Center for Mental Retardation in Waltham, author of a book on forced sterilization of the retarded, cautions against applying today's standards to experiments done decades ago. After all, the US Public Health Service conducted its Tuskegee syphilis experiment -- in which black men were denied treatment to see how the disease affected them -- until it came to public attention in 1972.

Still, Reilly said, the human radiation researchers can be held accountable. "They had to realize that any radiation beyond background radiation involved some risk," Reilly said. At Fernald, he said, "they were not being up front by their own standards at that time."

Researchers called the teen-agers who took part in the Fernald experiments a "science club" even though they had the "mental age" of 8-year-olds. "I guess they were calling all these kids who were doing this a club to make them develop a rapport among themselves," said Maletskos, who was not involved in recruiting participants.

In the first battery of tests, conducted in 1946 before Maletskos arrived, 17 adolescent boys ate meals laced with radioactive iron, an isotope that can harm blood and the spleen. Based on figures in an unpublished report on the project, the children's spleens were exposed to between 544 and 1,024 millirems of radiation over the course of seven meals. By comparison, the typical American receives about 300 millirems of radiation from natural sources each year.

Next, the team studied calcium digestion by adding a radioactive form of calcium to the breakfast milk of 19 boys. This time, each child had only one radioactive meal, exposing each child's bones to 35 millirems of radiation. By comparison, during their lifetimes, most Americans will receive 110 millirems of radiation on their bones from the fallout of nuclear weapons testing, according to Jacob Shapiro, director of radiation protection at Harvard University.

Maletskos said the research team did everything possible to minimize exposure using animals to develop test procedures first and then limiting each boy's participation. "If you could do it any other way, we did not recommend radiation," said Maletskos, a biophysicist who is still researching the effects of radium and thorium on health.

Shapiro declined to say whether the experiments were dangerous, but he added, "I would ask a colleague of mine, would you let your child get that dose?"

Records at the Fernald library are incomplete, but they are dotted with references to radiation research from 1946 to 1956, including a list of 49 children invited to an annual Christmas party at MIT as a reward for taking part in the experiments. "I can remember vividly the kids singing the red-nosed reindeer song, and it was very well done," recalled Maletskos.

Even if the radiation levels were trivial, mental health experts today say that the Fernald experiments probably could not be repeated. Today, human experiments must win approval from two independent review boards that force researchers to consider alternatives and calculate the risks. And in any human tests, subjects or their guardians must have all the facts before they can agree to participate.

 


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