April 10, 1995
’49 memo laid plan to study effects of radiation on humans
By H. Josef Hebert
WASHINGTON — Researchers outlined an elaborate plan in 1949 to use workers at a Tennessee uranium processing plant to learn more about the long-term effects of chronic radiation exposure on humans, a recently declassified document showed.
Although details about the proposed Oak Ridge, Tenn., studies are sketchy, the document suggested that the aim was focused more on using the workers as guinea pigs to learn about radiation health effects than on worker protection, said one investigator.
“There is an opportunity to secure the type of medical information required . . . to interpret, in terms of human experience, the toxicological findings of small animal research,” the researchers argued in detailing the proposed studies.
At the time, in the first years of the Cold War, relatively little was known about radiation’s effect on the body at various exposure levels. Scientists considered workers in the weapons plants as obvious subjects for close study and research because of their known exposure despite some limited efforts at protection.
The Oak Ridge document and other findings are to be discussed this week at a meeting of the president’s Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments, which for a year has been examining the government’s use of humans in radiation experiments during the decades of the Cold War.
The five-page memorandum was found by advisory committee investigators earlier this year in a vault containing hundreds of boxes of classified material at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.
Recently declassified, the memorandum provided little information about the workers except that they were involved in uranium processing and were known to be subject to radiation exposure despite protective ventilation equipment.
“It’s unclear what these workers were told, whether these plans were shared with them, and whether they were ever told about their exposures,” said a staff summary prepared for the presidential advisory panel.
Noting the need to learn more about health effects from such exposure, the researchers recommended that the studies be “inaugurated as soon as possible.” While the document, written by a scientist at Oak Ridge, suggested that the plan had been thoroughly discussed and given wide support, it’s not certain to what extent the proposal was implemented.
Investigators believed that it was pursued at least to some degree.
The researchers’ plan had two distinct focuses.
One program involved closely monitoring “one or two subjects” among technicians working on the electromagnetic separation of uranium. The workers would be tested to track uranium intake and absorption by the body.
To determine how much uranium the workers actually were breathing, a “dummy respirator” — set to run at the same rate as the workers’ breathing level — was set up alongside the workers and examined daily.
A separate avenue of research was aimed at a larger group of workers involved in the so-called “Sunflower” and “Daffodil” programs at Oak Ridge. Investigators could find little additional information about these programs among the documents examined in the classified vault, which contained hundreds of boxes not yet opened.
This research focused on gathering tissue samples, extracted teeth and — when a worker died — even bones and body parts so they could be examined for radiation effect.
Most of the samples were to be sent to the University of Rochester School of Medicine, which in the 1940s and early ’50s conducted much of the research into radiation effects on humans.
Dr. Harold C. Hodge, head of the Division of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the university, was quoted in the Oak Ridge memo as describing the need to secure tissue samples from the uranium workers.