A high level of criminal radioactivity

A high level of criminal radioactivity. The U.S. government's recently admitted role in radiation experiments on humans from the 1940s to the 1970s was questioned 13 years ago in these pages. In "Informed Consent" (Sept./Oct. 1981), Howard Rosenberg revealed that in the mid-1960s, cancer patients at the Institute of Nuclear Studies in Oak Ridge, Tenn., were used as guinea pigs when NASA needed data on human sensitivity to radiation.

Government scientists administered huge doses of radiation to at least 89 patients, among them six-year-old leukemia patient Dwayne Sexton, without regard to what was considered appropriate therapy. Concerned with the high levels of radiation astronauts were likely to encounter in space, researchers wanted to find out how much exposure would induce the vomiting and nausea associated with radiation sickness. The Sexton family was not fully informed of the risks these tests posed to Dwayne; he died of leukemia-related complications in 1968.

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Now, Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary has called for compensation for those who were harmed. The White House is investigating the extent of the experimentation, which may have involved several other government agencies. But for the Sextons and other victims, money in exchange for "the Buchenwald touch" (as one physician involved in radiation experiments wrote in a 1950 memo to the Atomic Energy Commission) is little consolation.