Panel Releases Report on Human Radiation Experiments

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Publication date: 
20 October 1995
Number: 
147

"The information that is available indicates that the physical harm
from the radiation is probably less than the damage - to
individuals, communities, and the government - caused by the
initial secrecy, however well motivated, and by subsequent failures
to deal honestly with the public thereafter."   
     -- Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments   

After a year and a half of intensive investigating, collecting
hundreds of thousands of pages of records, holding public hearings
and private interviews, the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation
Experiments has released its final report.  The huge 925-page
volume provides an unprecedented, in-depth review and analysis of
past radiation research on human subjects in the context of the
ethical standards and policy guidelines of the times.  It also
includes a review of current policies, and recommendations on how
to compensate victims of past abuses as well as to ensure that no
similar abuses occur in the future.

The Committee was formed by President Clinton in January 1994,
after the end of the Cold War and press coverage of radiation
experiments prompted Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary to decide that
the history should be made public.  The President met with
committee members at the first meeting on April 21, 1994.
According to the report, he urged them to "tell the full story to
the American public," and to "ensure that whatever wrongdoing may
have occurred in the past cannot be repeated."  The 14-member
Committee is composed of experts in various aspects of medicine,
health, ethics, history and law, and a citizen representative.  It
was charged with reviewing the history of government-sponsored
human radiation experiments and intentional radiation releases
between 1944 and 1974, and determining "the ethical and scientific
standards by which to evaluate" them.  The committee was also
authorized to examine samples of current research on human
subjects.

The committee reports that it "had to collect information scattered
in warehouses throughout the country... [and] create and test the
framework needed to ensure that there would be a `big picture' into
which all the pieces of the puzzle would fit."  Although many
records had inevitably been lost or destroyed, the document
commends the cabinet-level Human Radiation Interagency Working
Group - comprised of the secretaries of defense, energy, HHS, VA,
and other government officials - for their efforts at making
federal records available.

The report follows the government's history of human radiation
experiments, beginning with Second World War and Cold War-era
concerns about preparing for and surviving an atomic war.  The
Committee was able to trace, from existing documents, the evolution
of ethical standards for human-subject research over the time
period studied.  An important benchmark in scientific ethics was
the 1947 development of the Nuremberg Code as a standard by which
to judge Nazi researchers.  The committee found that the concept of
informed consent from subjects was commonly used in human
experimentation prior to that, going back to the
turn-of-the-century use of military volunteers in Yellow Fever
research.  A number of government agencies and officials, in
particular the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), held discussions and
formulated statements about the need for informed consent in
radiation experiments, but these guidelines, the report says, were
often not made public or effectively disseminated to the
experimenters who needed them.  Policies for use of radiation on
sick patients and vulnerable populations were less clear-cut and
slower to evolve, according to the report.  In the case of sick
subjects in particular, the report finds that issues of
doctor-patient confidence and the possibility of potential benefits
clouded the ethics issue.

It was only in 1974, the endpoint of the committee's study, that
the Department of Health, Education and Welfare adopted a
comprehensive set of regulations for all human-subject research,
and not until 1991 that the regulations were instituted
government-wide.

Over the 30-year period, the committee reports that the government
sponsored, through several different agencies, thousands of human
radiation experiments and several hundred intentional releases of
radiation.  The committee found that the majority of experiments
were radioactive tracer studies that were "unlikely to have caused
physical harm," and asserts that overall, "the legacy of
distrust...is probably more significant than the legacy of physical
harm."  In some cases, the committee holds the government and
government officials responsible for failure to disseminate and
implement their own policies.  In other instances, it charges that
individual researchers were responsible when they did not comply
with the accepted standards of professional ethics at the time.
With respect to experiments most closely related to national
security, the committee says, "it does not appear that such
considerations would have barred satisfying the basic elements of
voluntary consent."

To the question of whether similar abuses could occur again,
particularly in the case of intentional releases, the committee
gives "a qualified yes."  It notes that some agencies can still
invoke national security considerations to waive consent
requirements, that agencies are often responsible for their own
oversight, and that environmental impact statements relating to
classified projects are not available for public scrutiny.  The
report recommends numerous changes to current federal policies;
most significantly, it calls for elimination of all exemptions from
informed consent requirements.

On the subject of compensation, the committee suggests that the
government provide a personal, individualized apology to those
people used as research subjects without their knowledge, or to
surviving family members.  If physical harm resulted, or if the
government deliberately attempted to conceal their participation to
avoid liability or embarrassment, the committee recommends that the
government also provide financial compensation.

A copy of the report, with additional materials, will be available
on Internet at http://www.seas.gwu.edu/nsarchive/radiation.  The
report may also be purchased from the Superintendent of Documents,
GPO, at (202)512-1800; fax (202)512-2250.

In response to many of the concerns indicated by the committee, on
October 3 President Clinton announced that a National Bioethics
Advisory Commission will be established by executive order.  All
federal agencies involved in human-subject research are ordered to
review their policies for such research, taking "account of the
recommendations contained in the report of the Advisory Committee
on Human Radiation Experiments," and report within 120 days to the
Bioethics Commission.

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