by Geoffrey Sea

March/April 1994

The Media & Me

Sea is an Oakland-based writer, radiological health physicist, and international activist on radiation issues. He is the founder and director of In Vivo: Radiation Response and the Atomic Reclamation and Conversation Project of the Tides Foundation, and a co-founder of IRIS: International Radiation Injury Survivors.

Suddenly, at the close of 1993, the public was bombarded with "news" about the feeding of radioactive substances to pregnant women and mentally retarded students, about the unethical irradiation of workers, soldiers, medical patients, and prison inmates, and about the government's own internal fears that these experiments had "a little of the Buchenwald touch." But the story that appeared in The Albuquerque Tribune (circulation: 35,000) on November 15-17, and was then projected into the national headlines by the forthright admissions and initiatives of Secretary of Energy Hazel O'Leary, was hardly new.

By 1984, activists and researchers across the country were systematically investigating the human experimentation program and attempting to bring it to public attention. By 1986, documentation of the program was massive, solid, and publicly available.

I am among those who persistently tried to get national media coverage of this outrageous example of government wrongdoing. To say that the media were reluctant to listen would be an understatement. The fact is that, for more than a decade, documentation was ignored and facts were misreported.

What follows is a chronology of significant events in the strange history of this important story -- one that began to receive adequate coverage only after almost all the victims were dead and most of the perpetrators retired:

1971: The Washington Post reveals that a research team at the University of Cincinnati, under the leadership of Eugene Saenger, has been irradiating "mentally enfeebled" patients -- all of them poor and most of them black -- at dose rates known to have harmful effects. The aim of the research, funded by the Department of Defense: to discover whether and under what conditions soldiers on an atomic battlefield would be cognitively imparied.

A review panel is established at the University of Cincinnati. However, the ethical issues are subordinated to the relatively technical question of the mechanism for obtaining consent. The experiments continue. No one seems to consider the obvious ethical problem involved in extracting "informed consent" from patients selected because of their "low-educational level . . . low-functioning intelligence quotient . . . and strong evidence of cerebral organic deficit." The researchers claim that the patients "benefit" from the radiation exposure, despite the fact that the radiation far exceeds recommended therapeutic doses, that the treatments are not intended to have a therapeutic effect, and that, in Saenger's own estimation, eight patient deaths could possibly be attributed to the "treatments."

1972: The researchers quietly end their experiments when evidence of harmful effects begins to mount. After a cursory review by the American College of Radiology, no one bothers to reopen the case for public scrutiny. No attempt is made to monitor the health of the surviving experimental subjects.

1975: Following revelations of army-sponsored LSD experiments, Senator Edward Kennedy chairs hearings on human experimentation funded by the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency. Radiation experiments, however, are not mentioned either in the hearings or in media coverage.

1976: Science Trends, a newsletter published in the National Press Building in Washington, D.C., reveals an experiment carried out in San Francisco, Chicago, and Rochester, New York, as part of the Manhattan Project, that "involved the injection of relatively massive quantities of bomb-grade plutonium into the veins of 18 men, women, and children." The article implies that the experiment was an isolated historical case, and concludes: "Whether injecting the key ingredient of the atomic bomb into unsuspecting patients can be equated with Nazi wartime experiments is a matter which is today considered moot."

1981: The case of Dwayne Sexton, irradiated as a child as part of NASA-sponsored research aimed at discovering the potential effects of radiation exposure on astronauts, gains fleeting attention when the mother of the child links the death of her son to the experiments. Mother Jones runs a cover story on the Sexton case. Albert Gore, then a young congressman from Tennessee, where the experiments had taken lace, follows up with hearings on the Oak Ridge Total Body Irradiation Program. Neither the article nor the hearings links the Sexton case with the Saenger experiments or with the broader program of human experimentation with radiation.

Early-1980s: A network of activist-researchers starts to compile the full and extensive record of U.S. radiation experiments on humans.

* In Cincinnati, Ohio, Dr. David Egilman of the Greater Cincinnati Occupational Health Center and I are investigating experiments conducted on nuclear workers and following the trail of the Saenger experiments. At the time, I am employed as a health consultant by the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union and the Fernald Atomic Trades and Labor Council. The unions are concerned about the intentional radioactive contamination of workers' skin as a means of testing external cleansing agents and about the continuing use of workers as experimental subjects in the development of chelation drugs to treat internal exposure to radioactive heavy metals.

In the course of pressing claims for worker's compensation, we discover that the AEC/DOE has secretly contracted with local hospitals and coroners for the collection of fluid and tissue samples, surgically removed organs, and autopsy specimens -- in some cases, whole cadavers of atomic workers. Some of these specimens are being taken and destroyed by the government, often without the knowledge or against the expressed wishes of the workers and/or their survivors.

We suspect that this "body-snatching" program serves a dual purpose: it helps the government accumulate data for military purposes, while at the same time it results in the destruction of physical evidence that could support compensation claims. Finally, we are concerned that Dr. Saenger has become the chief consultant and expert witness for the government in defending itself and its contractors against liability suits.

* In California, Dorothy Legarreta, who had worked on the Manhattan Project as a laboratory technician, organizes the National Association of Radiation Survivors (NARS) and starts to write a book about human experimentation. In 1982, while examining the papers of Joseph Hamilton -- the scientist in charge of radiation experiments at the University of California -- at the library of the University of California at Berkeley, she comes across a 1950 memo written to Shields Warren, then director of the Atomic Energy Commission's Division of biology and medicine. The memo advised that large primates -- chimpanzees, for example -- be substituted for humans in the planned studies on radiation's cognitive effects (the very same program of experimentation that Dr. Saenger was to execute). The use of humans, Hamilton wrote, might leave the AEC open "to considerable criticism," since the experiments as proposed had "a little of the Buchenwald touch."

After Legarreta finds the so-called Buchenwald memo, Hamilton's papers are removed from public access by University of California administrators. Soon after this, Legarreta files a Freedom of Information Act request with the Department of Energy, asking for all documents concerning experiments in which humans were intentionally exposed to radioactive materials through injection or ingestion. Later that year, NARS receives a two-foot-high carton of documents in response -- documents that, for the first time, expose the widespread human experimentation program of the U.S. government.

* In Missouri, Dotte Troxell is trying to document her own horrific experience and to demonstrate the bonds that unite all experiment survivors. In 1957, while working at the AEC's Kansas City plant, run by Bendix, she had been involved in a serious radiation accidnet. When the symptoms of acute radiation syndrome began appearing (hair loss, nausea, purpura, and hemorrhaging), she was sent to the Lovelace Clinic in New Mexico, a clinic established by the AEC for developing treatments for radiation injury. Because Troxell was thought to be near death, and presumably because she had been exposed to a Cobalt-60 calibration source that allowed the dose to her organs to be precisely determined, the doctors at Lovelace did exploratory surgery on her, probably to obtain tissue biopsies from her internal organs. When she awoke from surgery and asked what had been done to her, the doctors said they could not tell her for "national security" reasons. After suffering radiogenic cataracts in both eyes and giving birth to a son with congenital diabetes, Troxell founds VOTE: Victms and Veterans Opposed to Technological Experimenation.

* In Knoxville, Tennessee, Clifford T. Honicker and Jacqueline Kittrell are investigating the human experimentation program at the DOE's nuclear complex at Oak Ridge. They locate and begin to analyze the papers of Stafford Warren, who had been medical director of the Manhattan Project and who subsequently directed the Oak Ridge medical program. Those of Warren's papers that are obtained, including classified documents and medico-legal files, provide a clear picture of the origins of the government's human experimentation program, as well as of the government's policy of denying compensation to radiation survivors. Honicker and Kittrell found the Radiation Research Project, which later becomes the American Environmental Health Studies Project.

Mid-1980s: Our network has accumulated enough documentation on the human experimentation program to go public. We do so at press conferences held in Cincinnati (November 1984), Knoxville (May 1985), Kansas City (May 1986), and Berkeley (July 1986). At each of the last three conferences, Hamilton's Buchenwald memo is released to the press, but no mainstream paper mentions it.

1985-86: In contract talks, the labor council representing workers at the DOE's Fernald, Ohio, uranium plant demands disclosure of all human studies involving uranium and plutonium, as well as information about toxic releases to the environment, use of atomic workers as experimental subjects, and the body-snatching program. Rather than release this information to the labor council, DOE officials contact the AFL-CIO leadership and threaten to close the plant if labor will not honor its "national security obligations." Frank Martino, president of the International Chemical workers Union, writes to Paul Burnsky, president of the AFL-CIO Metal Trades Department, calling for an end to "continued efforts to represent the community" -- a reference to the council's attempt to obtain information from the DOE through collective bargaining. The unions back off on their demand for information and abruptly terminate my employment. Dr. Egilman is instructed to stop all radiation-related work. He chooses instead to resign.

Dr. Egilman and I decide that now is the time to take everything we have and give it to The New York Times. Dr. Egilman gives the Buchenwald memo to Times reporter Matthew Wald, a college acquaintance. But no article appears in 1985, and there is no word from the Times. I contact Times reporter Stuart Diamond, describe the outlines of the story, arrange a meeting, assemble a stack of documents, and fly to New York. Diamond and I meet at a restaurant at La Guardia Airport. After reviewing the documents, including the Buchenwald memo, he says he will come to Ohio and look into the story.

On January 28, 1986, the date of Diamond's intended arrival, I am working at my desk with the television turned on but the sound off, as I often do. I am distracted at one point by a striking picture on the TV screen: a beautiful white plume of smoke unfurling against the azure sky. It is the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. Within the hour Diamond calls to say that he will be investigating the Challenger disaster -- and thus won't becoming to Ohio any time soon. He tells me to wait until he's done with the Challenger story. I wait for three months.

On April 26, the number three unit at the Chernobyl nuclear energy station explodes, and melts down. Diamond leaves to cover the accident. I leave Cincinnati and head for Kansas City, where, on May 5, Dotte Troxell and I hold a press conference. We say that U.S. criticism of Soviet secrecy on Chernobyl is hypocritical and call on the U.S. government to release all data on human experimentation. In our press release we attack the credibility of Dr. Saenger -- who has quickly been hired to advise the U.S. government on Chernobyl's impact on U.S. personnel stationed in Europe and has become the media's authority on Chernobyl's health effects. Our press release also details the U.S. human experimentation program "that has, at various times, included the exposure of prisoners, mental patients, terminal cancer patients, and paid volunteers to 'non-therapeutic' radiation doses . . ." Again, we show the Buchenwald memo to the press. The press responds with silence. A number of us start working our congressional contacts. Cliff Honicker, Dorothy Legarreta, and I all had a close working relationship with the House Subcommittee on Energy Conservation and Power when it had been under the chairmanship of Representative Richard Ottinger of New York. Near the end of his tenure, Ottinger had authorized a full-scale staff investigation into the DOE's human experimentation program.

By 1986 chairmanship of the subcommittee has passed to Edward Markey of Massachusetts. Eager to see some result of the investigation, we press the subcommittee to go public inhearings and a report. No hearings are held -- a curious fact given the magnitude of the issue -- but in October the staff issues its report. "American Nuclear Guinea Pigs: Three Decades of Radiation Experiments on U.S. Citizens." Markey simultaneously issues a press release that states: "The purpose of several experiments was actually to cause injury to the subjects . . . American citizens thus became nuclear calibration devices for experimenters run amok."

The Markey report, which contains all the relevant facts that would be treated as major revelations seven years later, results in minor and often misleading news stories in several papers. The New York Times's Matthew Wald extracts a single strand from the ninety-five-page report -- news that some of the releases of radioactive iodine from the Hanford, Washington, nuclear facility had been intentional -- and turns it into a story that runs on page A-20. The other ninety-plus pages of the report, which deal with unethical clinical experiments, are downplayed in a small, unbylined piece headed VOLUNTEERS AROUND U.S. SUBMITTED TO RADIATION. Contrary to the Markey report and to fact, the headline and article imply that all subjects had volunteered for the experiments and that they knew they were subjected to radiation. Neither article mentions the Buchenwald memo.

Of all the papers that come to our attention, only The Daily Californian, the student newspaper at the University of California at Berkeley, points up the Buchenwald memo. In a piece titled "At Buchenwald and Berkeley," editor-in-chief Howard Levine quotes from the November 28, 1950, memo by Dr. Hamilton and incisively criticizes reporting on the Markey report by the San Francisco Chronicle and The New York Times. Both papers, he writes, "minimized the gross inhumanity of these tests by downplaying their scope and ignoring the fact that most of the experiments were conducted without the 'informed consent' demanded by the Nuremburg protocols of 1946-47."

1987: Eileen Welsome of The Albuquerque Tribune starts looking into the plutonium-injection experiment, after coming across a footnote about it in a report on animal experimentation at the Air Force Weapons Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico.

1988: Dorothy Legarreta is killed in a mysterious car crash, reminiscent of the death of Karen Silkwood. Legarreta's briefcase -- listed on the accident report as being found -- is missing. The tow-truck driver says that the solid aluminum case was discarded because it was badly damaged,, though such an action would be against the law. I was working with Legarreta just prior to herdeath and know that her briefcase contained a file titled "hot docs" -- formerly secret documents that she and I had culed from government papers obtained through a class action lawsuit by veterans who had been intentinoally exposed to atomic blasts and radiation while in the service.

1989: On November 19, The New York Times Magazine publishes an article by Cliff Honicker titled "The Hidden Files." The subtitle reads: "In 1946, a Nuclear Accident Killed One Scientist and Injured Several Others. The Government Response to That Tragedy Established a Pattern of Secrecy That Still Exists." Based in large part on the files Honicker had discovered five years earlier, the closely focused article does not deal with the government's years-long human experimentation program and its origins.

1991: 60 Minutes airs a segment on the government's body-snatching program. In his introduction to the January13 segment, Harry Reasoner says: "In the case of the men and women who have worked in this country's nuclear-weapons industry, the government is apparently wiling to go to any lengths to defeat workers' claims that they were injured or killed by exposure to radiation -- any lengths, including falsifying records, concealing evidence, even trying to steal human remains . . ." Oddly, according to the segment's producer, one of the most powerful interviews -- with a courier who arranges for the shipment of body parts to Los Alamos and who was present at a secret autopsy at which body parts were removed without the knowledge or consent of the family --winds up on the cutting room floor.

Meanhwile, Jackie Kittrell and Cliff Honicker have been combing the hills of Tennessee, trying to track down women who, while pregnant, had been unwitting subjects in radioisotope ingestion studies decades earlier. Since some of the initial recruitment for the experiments had been through classified ads placed in newspapers in remote Appalachian towns, Jackie and Cliff try, repeatedly, to get the same papers to run articles describing the experiments and asking the women to come forward on a confidential basis. They try to persuade the Nashville Tennessean to run such articles because one of the largest experiments, involving more than 800 pregnant women, took place at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville. At least one reporter -- Carolyn Shoulders at The Tennessean -- proposes articles about the experimentation program to her editors, but no proposal meets with approval.

1992: In May, frustrated by the feeling that we are shouting in the wind, Dotte Troxell announces that she will begin a hunger strike in July, which she says she will continue until death unless the government releases all data on the experiments and provides care for all survivors. She says she prefers death "on her own terms" to a slow, quiet death preceded by the intensifying pains of her radiation injuries and she wants to use the hunger strike to help establish a union called IRIS: International Radiation Injury Survivors. But, fatigued and under the influence of pain-killing drugs, she dies in a tractor accident in late-May. She leaves behind the text of an intended final speech in which she asks to be cremated so that "the perpetrators of cruel and barbaric experimentation" will be denied "the knowledge they seek." She also for gives all those in the government, the public interest community, and the media who continue to "ignore our plight, for they know not -- they were not on shipboard in the nuclear Pacific tests or in the trenches in Nevada, nor are they with the veterans in VA hospitals . . ."

1993: In mid-November, The Albuquerque Tribune publishes EileenWelsome's three-part series, "The Plutonium Experiment." In late-December, a decade after Kittrell and Honicker alerted the paper to the story -- The Tennessean finally publishes an article about the Vanderbilt experiment and its medical follow-up study.

Emma Craft, who had never known that she had been fed radioactive iron in the 1940s, reads a detailed description of the 1958 death by cancer of an unnamed eleven-year-old girl whom she recognizes as her daughter.

1994: Craft, along with a handful of other women who have learned through The Tennessean that they had been experimental subjects, files a class action lawsuit against a long list of defendants, led by Vanderbilt University. (I sign on as a radiation expert with the law firm representing the women and surviving children.)

Acting as if the recent "revelations" are news to him, John Herrington, Secretary of Energy in the Reagan administration and now vice-chairman of the California republican party, tells The Associated Press that during his tenure "there had not been enough work done to establish that there was a problem." This is reported without comment or correction.