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US Government's Medical Experiments on Citizens

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US Government's Plutonium Experiments on Citizens

[From News From the Libertarian Party, November 21, 1996]

WASHINGTON, DC -- Jail time, not payoffs -- that's the way to deal with 30 years of secret, gruesome government medical experiments, the Libertarian Party said today.

"The government should not be able to buy its way out of responsibility by paying off victims with taxpayers' money," said Steve Dasbach, chairman of America's third-largest political party. "Instead, attempted murder charges should be filed against the politicians who approved secret radioactivity, chemical, and biological experiments on innocent Americans."

Dasbach's comments came after Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary announced this week that the government would pay $4.8 million to the families of 12 human "guinea pigs" who were injected with plutonium and uranium -- without their knowledge or consent -- during secret government experiments in the 1940s.

"Politicians, bureaucrats, and government employees should be held to the same standard as any other American," Dasbach said. "If an average citizen, for example, secretly injected people with highly radioactive Plutonium 239, he would be in jail facing murder charges. Instead, the government is spending $4.8 million of our money to try to buy a clean conscience."

"The use of taxpayers' money for the payoff is especially reprehensible," said Dasbach.

"If compensation is warranted, it should be in the form of victim restitution from the specific individuals responsible for the crimes," he said. "Taxpayers shouldn't be further punished for the crimes of politicians."

"First, thousands of individuals were the subjects of horrific government experiments for more than three decades," he said. "Then, Americans were kept in the dark for another two decades while the government tried desperately to cover up its crimes. Now, we're being taxed to pay off the victims of these ghoulish experiments -- while the politicians and bureaucrats who committed these crimes remain at large."

In announcing the settlement, O'Leary said the government was "grateful" to the victims for "the tough lessons they have taught us about trust, responsibility, and accountability between the government and the people."

"The real lesson this case teaches is: Government can't be trusted," countered Dasbach. "If politicians have power over our lives, they will abuse it. And the more power we give politicians, the more they abuse it. If nothing else, this tragic case should end the myth that such atrocities can't happen in America."

Despite the $4.8 million payoff, lawsuits continue to pile up from as many as 20,000 other individuals who are demanding compensation by the government for biochemical experiments conducted in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s, according to news reports.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg, noted Dasbach.

A Congressional subcommittee hearing in Washington, DC on September 28, 1994 revealed that up to 500,000 Americans were endangered by secret defense-related tests between 1940 and 1974 -- including covert experiments with radioactive materials, mustard gas, LSD, and biological agents. For example, between 1949 and 1969, the Army released radioactive compounds in 239 cities to study the effects, according to General Accounting Office testimony the hearings.

Other secret tests were conducted on prisoners, terminally ill patients, military personnel, hospital patients -- even children. At the time of the hearings, GAO officials stressed that the number of victims might increase, as new information was uncovered from Pentagon, CIA, NASA, and Energy Department files.

The Committee had its origins when public controversy developed surrounding human radiation experiments that were conducted half a century ago. In November 1993, the Albuquerque Tribune published a series of articles that, for the first time, publicly revealed the names of Americans who had been injected with plutonium, the man-made material that was a key ingredient of the atom bomb. Reporter Eileen Welsome put a human face to what had previously been anonymous data published in official reports and technical journals. "As World War II was ending," she wrote, "Doctors in the United States injected a number of hospitalized patients with plutonium, very likely without their knowledge or consent. The injections were part of a group of experiments to determine how plutonium courses through the human body. The experiments, and the very existence of plutonium, were shrouded in secrecy."

On reading the articles, Secretary of Energy Hazel O'Leary expressed shock, first to her staff, and then in response to a question posed at a press conference. She was particularly concerned because the Department of Energy had its earliest origins in the agencies responsible for building the atomic bomb and sponsoring the plutonium experiments. During the Cold War, these agencies had continued to do much of their work in the twilight zone between openness and secrecy. Now, the Cold War was over. The time had come, Secretary O'Leary determined, to make public anything that remained to be told about the plutonium experiments.

Subsequent press reports soon noted that the plutonium injections were not the only human radiation experiments that had been conducted during the war and the decades that followed. In Massachusetts, the press reported that members of the "science club" at the Fernald School for the Retarded had been fed oatmeal containing minute amounts of radioactive material. In Ohio, news articles revived an old controversy about University of Cincinnati researchers who had been funded by the Defense Department to gather data on the effects of "total-body irradiation" on cancer patients. In the Northwest, the papers retold the story of Atomic Energy Commission funding of researchers to irradiate the testicles of inmates in Oregon and Washington prisons in order to gain knowledge for use in government programs. The virtually forgotten 1986 report prepared by a subcommittee headed by U.S. Representative Edward Markey, "American Nuclear Guinea Pigs: Three Decades of Radiation Experiments on U.S. Citizens," was also recalled to public attention.

Coincidentally, the fact that the environment had also been used as a secret laboratory became a subject of controversy. A November 1993 congressional report uncovered 13 cases in which government agencies had intentionally released radiation into the environment without notifying the affected populations. At various times, tests were conducted in Tennessee, Utah, New Mexico, and Washington State.

Senator John Glenn understood the importance of national security, but he found it "inconceivable... that, even at the height of the communist threat, some of our scientists and doctors and military and perhaps political leaders approved some of these experiments to be conducted on an unknowing and unwitting public."

Were all the human radiation experiments done in secret? Are any secret or controversial studies still ongoing?

Scientists and science journalists pointed out that some of the highly publicized experiments had long ago been the subject of technical journal articles, even press accounts, and were old news; other commentators countered that, for most of the public, articles in technical journals might as well be secret.

How, why, and from what population groups were subjects selected for experiments? Some suspected that subjects were disproportionately chosen from the most vulnerable populations -- children, hospitalized patients, the retarded, the poor -- those too powerless to resist the government and its researchers.

How many intentional releases took place, and how many people were unknowingly put at risk? The answer here was sketchy; the releases identified in the November 1993 Glenn report had all been performed in secret, and much information about them was still secret.

What did our government and the medical researchers it sponsored do to ensure that the subjects were informed of what would be done to them and that they were given meaningful opportunities to consent? Today, federal government rules require the prior review of proposed experiments, to ensure that the risks and potential benefits have been considered and that subjects will be adequately informed and given the opportunity to consent. But the standards of today, many historians and scholars of medical ethics noted, are not those of yesterday. Others, however, declared that it was self-evident that no one should be experimented upon without his or her voluntary consent.

Panel Releases Report on Human Radiation Experiments (1995)

Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment

by Kevin C. Pyle

Syphilis: Highly contagious disease caused by the spirochete Treponema pallidum. Disease may be acquired or congenital. In acquired syphilis, T. Pallidum enters the body through skin or mucous membranes, usually during sexual contact. Congenital syphilis is transmitted to the fetus from the infected mother when the spirochete penetrates the placenta.

Syphilis is a systemic disease, involving tissues throughout the body. After initial penetration, the spirochetes multiply rapidly. First they enter the lymph capillaries where they are transported to the nearest lymph gland. There they multiply and are released into the blood stream. Within days the spirochetes invade every part of the body. Three stages mark the progression of the disease; primary, secondary, and tertiary.

Primary Stage: 10-60 days after infection. Primary lesion usually appears at point of contact, usually genitals. Typically a painless, slightly elevated, round ulcer, the chancre may be so small as to elude detection. Barring secondary infection, chancre will heal without treatment within 30-60 days leaving a scar the persists for several months.

Secondary Stage: 6 weeks to 6 months. Appearance of rash resembling measles, chicken pox, or any number of skin eruptions. Pain in bones and joints and cardiac palpitations may develop. Fever, indigestion, headaches may accompany rash. In some cases, highly infectious, spirochete-laden ulcers may appear in mouth. Scalp hair may drop out in patches, creating "moth-eaten" appearance.

Tertiary Stage: Appearance of gummy or rubbery tumors, resulting from spirochete concentration in body tissue. On the skin, these often coalesce into large, encrusted ulcers consisting of several layers of dry, exuded matter. Tumors may be absorbed, leaving slight, scarred depressions, or may cause wholesale destruction of bone resulting in mutilation when nasal and palate bones are eaten away.

The presence of T. Pallidum in cerebrospinal may cause neurosyphilis, which may take several forms, including general softening of the brain, resulting in paralysis and insanity, as well as Tabes dorsalis, a degeneration of the spinal cord, causing a stumbling, foot-stamping gait. Can also cause irreversible blindness, or the 8th cranial nerve, inflicting permanent deafness.

Tumors may also attack and weaken the walls of heart or blood vessels. Heart valves may no longer open and close properly, resulting in leakage. The stretching vessel walls may produce an aortic aneurysm, a balloonlike bulge. If the bulge bursts, as often is the case, the result is sudden death.

In 1932 the United States Public Health Service (PHASE), in cooperation with the Tuskegee Institute, initiated a study in Macon County, Alabama to determine the effects of untreated syphilis. The study would last until 1970 and follow 399 black men diagnosed with syphilis.

In order to ensure that they would not be treated, which became increasingly difficult with the discovery and widespread use of penicillin after 1943, local physicians, draft boards and PHS venereal disease eradication programs were given a list of the "subjects."

The men, the most educated of whom completed 7th grade, were told they were being treated for "bad blood," a term the white doctors claimed was a synonym for syphilis in the black community. One participant responded, "That could be true. But I have never heard no such thing."

In reality, the only treatment the men received was aspirin (what the doctors chose to call "pink medicine") and an iron supplement. Having previously encountered little or no health care, the participants were delighted. "They were always glad to see us," one doctor recalled, explaining how the men showed their gratitude by giving the "government doctors" gifts. "They brought cornbread, cookies, whatever they could make, and they were very, very pleased if you ate it -- most pleased."

In order to chart the progression of the disease, the subjects were frequently, under the guise of treatment, required to give blood samples. They also were subjected to a procedure known as the "lumbar puncture" to diagnose neural syphilis.

To obtain a sample of fluid, a large needle was inserted directly into the spinal canal. This procedure was painful, and patients often suffered severe headaches. In rare cases, it can result in paralysis or even death.

Fearing word of "Dr. Vonderlehr's golden needle treatments," as the doctors referred to it, would discourage participation, whole regions were done at a time, and letters were sent out promising "Special Free Treatment" and warning "Last Chance for Special Examination."

Other inducements were free hot meals, the illusion of free medical care, an award certificate signed by the surgeon general, and a $50 burial stipend. For people living below the poverty line, a third of whom lived in shacks without plumbing, these were no small rewards.

The burial stipend was created as a solution to the problem of obtaining permission for autopsies, an important part of the study. Local doctors were relied upon to contact PHS in the event of death of a subject. This system worked well because the doctors were so honored to be participating in a national study.

Due to media exposure, the study was halted in 1970. By that time, at least 28 and perhaps as many as 100 had died as a direct result of complications caused by syphilis.

In December of 1974, the government agreed to pay approximately $10 million in an out of court settlement: $37,500 per participant. A year earlier, it had offered free medical care to the surviving participants and their families, many of whom had contracted the disease congenitally.

For obvious reasons, the survivors preferred compensatory funds with which to hire their own physicians.

See also: Nuremberg Code of Ethics (Human Experimentation)


Miss Evers Boys (Video with Alfre Woodard and Lawrence Fishburne)

Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment by James H. Jones

Tuskegee Syphilis Study by Fred Gray

The Black-White Test Score Gap by Jencks and Phillips

Being Black, Living in the Red: Race, Wealth and Social Policy in America by Dalton Conley

Kinship: A Family's Journey in Africa and America by Philippe E. Wamba

National Public Radio's "Talk of the Nation" Discussion of the Tuskegee Studies

Kevin C. Pyle's Original Work: Pink Medicine (Site currently inoperative)

Families Emerge as Silent Victims

Declassified: Human Experimentation Declassified: Human Experimentation

Here is the shocking, true story of one of the ugliest chapters of the Cold War.

Return to Controversies and Coverups.


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