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Despite early fears, Fernald tests posed little risk to subjects

By Jeremy Hylton

In late 1993, Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary declassified thousands of documents about government-sponsored radiation experiments. Some of the documents shed new light on experiments conducted by researchers from MIT and Harvard University, in which children were exposed to radiation.

The experiments, conducted at the Walter E. Fernald State School in Waltham, Mass., in the 1950s, used radioactive tracers to study the way the body absorbs calcium and iron. The Fernald School was officially a home for retarded children, though some of the residents at the time of the experiments were not retarded.

Shortly after the documents were declassified, President Charles M. Vest read of the Fernald School tests in a Boston Globe article and asked Professor of Physics J. David Litster PhD '65, vice president and dean for research, to head an investigation of Institute records.

As Litster's investigation proceeded and negative publicity mounted, two primary concerns emerged: that the subjects had been exposed to high levels of radiation and that the children may have participated in the experiments without their parents' consent.

A state task force, headed by Rev. Doe West, and a special hearing of the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources, chaired by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), also investigated the experiments.

No significant health effects'

After a four-month investigation, the state task force concluded that "no significant health effects were incurred by the research subjects as a direct result of the nutritional research studies."

The task force also worked with Litster to identify which of the residents of the Fernald School had participated in the study.

Litster calculated the amount of radiation the youths at the Fernald School were exposed to based on the researchers' original data, which was published in several journal articles and a PhD thesis.

The highest exposure for any youth was 330 millirems, less than the yearly background radiation in Denver. The doses were all below the standards of the time, as well as today's more stringent standards.

However, the task force also concluded that the youths and their parents had not been informed that the children were being exposed to radioactive tracers.

"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," Vest said. Both he and Litster emphasized that informed consent is required for all research performed now, and that much stronger safeguards and guidelines are in place.

"The procedure in those days was that the medical person who provided access to the patients was the one who was responsible for the informed consent process," Litster said.

The burden for the Fernald School experiments apparently fell on C. E. Benda, clinical director at the Fernald School and a professor at Harvard Medical School.

Study of nutritional processes

The research, supervised by the late Professor of Nutrition Robert S. Harris, investigated how the body absorbs iron and calcium, in both cases making significant scientific advances.

"They did learn some interesting things from these experiments," Litster said. "Certainly the calcium experiments laid the groundwork for all kinds of follow-up studies involving calcium, metabolism, and trying to understand osteoporosis."

In three different calcium studies, each of the subjects was given two breakfasts of oatmeal or farina containing 0.85 microcuries of calcium-45. The doses amounted to exposure of between 4 and 12 millirems, depending on the body weight of the subjects.

Radiation exposure is measured by in units of rem, equivalent to one rad applied uniformly to the whole body. One rad equals one erg of energy per one gram of matter.

In the third experiment, the subjects also received a direct injection of calcium tracer. The first calcium study involved 45 youths, the second 17, and the third one had nine subjects.

In the iron studies, a small amount of radioactive iron was introduced in breakfasts cereals. The study exposed the 17 youths involved to higher levels of radiation, ranging from 170 to 330 millirems, according to Litster's calculations.

Current government standards allow a 500 millirem yearly exposure to radiation for minors working with radiation, and a 5,000 millirem yearly exposure limit for adults.

The radiation exposure in the calcium experiments was roughly equivalent to the exposure received during a flight from Boston to California (10 millirems). The exposure in the iron studies was similar to the yearly exposure a person receives from natural sources.

The equivalent increase in the risk of fatal cancer would be about 1 in 2,000 as the result of a 330 millirem exposure. The normal lifetime risk of contracting fatal cancer is 1 in 5.