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Task Force Reports on Fernald Studies

By Abhilash R. Vaishnav
Staff Reporter

At a news conference on May 9, the Task Force on Human Subject Research announced its conclusion that the subjects in the radiation experiments done by MIT and Harvard University researchers in the early 1950s were not exposed to dangerous levels of radiation.

The announcement was made at the Walter E. Fernald State School in Waltham, Mass., which is where the experiments took place.

In the 1950s, the late Professor of Nutrition Robert S. Harris studied the absorption of calcium and iron by feeding 125 mentally retarded patients of the Fernald school milk and cereal that contained radioactive tracers.

These experiments were first made public in late 1993 when Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary declassified thousands of government documents about radiation and radiation testing. In January, Philip Campbell, the commissioner of the Department of Mental Health, had the task force investigate these nutritional studies.

The task force met for four months before issuing its report. According to the report, "In the best judgment of the experts whose opinions were sought by the task force, no significant health effects were incurred by the research subjects as a direct result of the nutritional research studies in which radioactive calcium and iron tracers were used."

"I am pleased that the task force has confirmed MIT's initial impression that no harm was done to the participants in the cereal nutrition studies that were the initial focus of publicity," said Vice President and Dean for Research J. David Litster PhD '65 in a statement.

Also in the statement, MIT News Office Director Kenneth D. Campbell said that MIT nutrition research had used less than one billionth of an ounce of radioactive iron and calcium in a serving of cereal to chart the body's absorption of these elements. The exposure to radiation was well within the standards used during the 1950s, he said. Moreover, "The exposures to radiation were between 30 percent and 99 percent below the much more stringent standards that are in effect today," Campbell said.

Parents not informed

The parents of the youths at the Fernald school were probably not informed that the experiments their children would be participating in involved exposure to radiation, according to a report published in The Boston Globe earlier this year.

Both President Charles M. Vest and Litster were concerned about the ethical implications of these radiation studies as they were done without the informed consent of the parents of the mentally retarded youths.

In a statement issued in early January, Vest said, "I was sorry to hear that at least some of the young people who participated in this research and their parents apparently were unaware that the study involved radioactive tracers."

However, Vest and Litster did emphasize that the research has enhanced scientist's understanding of the nutritional processes and that the studies caused no harm to the health of the involved subjects.

"It is important to recognize that the purpose of these studies was to improve understanding of nutritional processes in order to promote health in young people, and that the radiation was well within today's limits," Vest said earlier this year.

The Task Force on Human Subject Research presented the results of its investigation to the commissioner in its 46-page report and about 250 pages of documentation and appendices in a paper-bound book, "A Report on the Use of Radioactive Materials in Human Subject Research that Involved Residents of State-Operated Facilities within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts from 1943 through 1973."