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Institute Charged in Fernald Radiation Experiment Lawsuit

By Stacey E. Blau
News Editor

The Institute has been charged in a lawsuit over radiation experiments MIT researchers conducted at a home for mentally retarded children during the 1950s.

The lawsuit comes only days after an advisory committee to President Clinton released findings about thousands of human radiation experiments conducted during the Cold War, including the tests done at the Fernald School. The committee concluded that the experiments were wrong and warranted apologies to the test subjects but that only a few should receive monetary compensation.

According to the lawsuit filed by former Fernald Science Club member Ronald Beaulieu, MIT violated the civil rights of at least 54 institutionalized children at the Walter E. Fernald School in Waltham, Mass. The researchers fed children doses of radiation with their breakfast cereal for the purpose of studying the way the body absorbs calcium and iron. The experiments were often performed without the informed consent of the subjects or their families.

The state of Massachusetts, researchers at the Fernald School, and the Quaker Oats Company were also charged in the suit, according to The Boston Globe.

Professor of Physics J. David Litster PhD '65, vice president and dean for research, said that MIT has not yet been served in the Beaulieu complaint.

Tests were morally troubling'

According to the government report, the Fernald School experiments were "morally troubling" and the government owes the test subjects an apology. But because there was no evidence that the subjects were harmed by exposure to any dangerous levels of radiation, the government is not obliged to monetarily compensate them.

At the Oct. 3 news conference that announced the completion of the committee's nearly 1,000-page report, Clinton made a formal apology to the thousands of subjects of radiation experiments reviewed by the committee.

The report stated that children at the Fernald School were "unfairly burdened" by researchers from MIT and Harvard, who encouraged the children to take part in tests with promises of gifts or trips to Red Sox games.

The researchers also appeared "unwilling to respect" some children's wishes not to participate in experiments, according to the report. The parents of the children involved in the experiments were not told that the tests involved radiation.

The report recommended that the federal government compensate only about 25 tests subjects in three experiments.

The committee also recommended that test subjects who are still unaware that they underwent radiation experiments should not be notified, unless they face more than a 1 in 1,000 cancer risk. Few subjects would qualify for notification, according to the report.

In late 1993, Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary declassified thousands of documents about government-backed radiation tests, prompting the formation of an advisory committee to investigate the experiments.

The committee's findings stressed the immorality of researchers' failure to obtain consent from test subjects and their families.

Unauthorized tests were wrong

"I was sorry to hear that at least some of the young people who participated in this research and their parents were unaware that the study involved radioactive tracers," said President Charles M. Vest.

A Massachusetts state task force concluded last year that "no significant health effects were incurred by the research subjects as a direct result of the nutritional research studies" at the Fernald School.

"It does seem to me that there was a very wide spectrum of things done, from the truly horrible to the harmless," Litster said. "The state task force did a surprisingly good job of finding out what was done and to whom."

The highest exposure for any subject 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.

"I got quite a dose of x-rays every time my parents took me to the shoe store - far more than the people got who participated in some of these studies 40 years ago. Does someone owe me an apology, and perhaps a monetary settlement?" Litster said.

"In most cases, I think, people were behaving well according to the knowledge and standards of the time," he said.

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who originally publicized government-sponsored radiation experiments in 1986, plans to introduce a bill in the next few weeks to compensate test subjects.