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Human experimentation crimes comparable to those we censured the Nazis and Japanese for committing during World War II, were committed in the United States by official federal agencies during peace time. And yet, when the government confessed its crimes last year, the press was not very interested.

From the mid-1940’s until the 1970’s, Federal agencies conducted the most heinous radiation exposure experiments on hundreds of human beings around the country. Some were reportedly volunteers but for others there is no record of informed consent. The extraordinary report was released by the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Friday, October 24, 1986. It documented how the Atomic Energy Commission and its successor, the Energy Research and Development Authority, both forerunners of the Department of Energy, financed studies involving researchers from government laboratories and such private institutions as the Sloan-Bettering Institute for Cancer Research in New York City and the University of California at Berkeley. The latter two studies involved injecting trace amounts of radiation into volunteer patients to study metabolism.

The purpose of the experiments was to expose humans to radiation to determine its effect on fertility and other biological functions and how the human body absorbed and retained radioactive contaminants.

In one major experiment involving inmates at the Washington State Prison, the testicles of 64 inmates were exposed to large doses of radiation. At the Oregon State Prison, the testicles of 67 inmates were irradiated from August 1963 to May 1971.

In Richland, Washington, 14 human subjects were immersed in tritium, a radioactive form of water, or given the material to drink or inhale, to measure retention and excretion. Others were injected with radioactive phosphorus, or fed fish from the Columbia River that were contaminated with phosphorus discharged by reactors at the Hanford site. Vasectomies were to be performed prior to discharge from the study to “avoid any possibility of contaminating the general population with irradiation-induced mutants,” however, in several instances, volunteers changed their minds and did not desire a vasectomy at the conclusion of the study. While the government intended to keep in contact with the irradiated prisoners, to watch for further health effects, those plans were dropped in 1976 after several irradiated inmates filed suits against the Federal government.

In another study, progesterone, a hormone found in women, was “labeled” with small amounts of radiation and injected into three patients, one 10 weeks pregnant. The report noted that “A therapeutic abortion 6 days later because of severe sickle cell anemia was performed.”


THE NEW YORK TIMES, 10/24/86, “Volunteers Around U.S. Submitted to Radiation.”