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MIT to Pay Victims $1.85 Million in Fernald Radiation Settlement

By Zareena Hussain
Associate News Editor

MITand Quaker Oats Co. agreed last week to pay $1.85 million to children at the Walter E. Fernald State School who were subjects of nutrition studies during the 1940s and 1950s as part of an out of court settlement. The students were fed breakfast cereals laced with minute amounts of radioactive iron and calcium tracers. Children were encouraged to take part in the testing with promises of gifts or trips to Red Sox games.

Fernald had been officially designated as a school for retarded children, although some of the residents at the time of the experiment were not retarded.

Following the declassification of federal records on post-war radiation experiments in 1993, a state task force investigating postwar radiation experiments throughout Massachusetts found children at Fernald were used in experiments without the informed consent of parents. A class action suit against MIT and Quaker Oats was filed by former students in December 1995.

MIT to pay most in settlement

A statement issued following the settlement said that the money will come primarily from MIT.

"I look on it as the tuition of 20 students," said Vice President for Research and Dean for Graduate Education, J. David Litster PhD 65, who investigated MIT's involvement in the Fernald experiments and presented his findings to the state task force in 1994. The Institute is not insured for such a liability so the money for the settlement will come directly from Institute funds, Litster said.

The amount of money going to each individual subject to the experiments will depend on the number of people who file claims, said Michael K. Mattchen of Dangel, Donlan, & Fine, an attorney for the plaintiffs in the case. If 40 to 50 people file a claim the average settlement will vary from $20,000 to $30,000, Mattchen said.

As many as 54 children institutionalized at Fernald were subject to radiation tests, according to former Fernald resident Ronald Beaulieu, who was named as a plaintiff in the case against the Institute.

Radiation exposure levels low

The work primarily involved ingestion of radioactive iron and calcium tracers with farina and oatmeal. A third experiment also involved the injection of minute amounts of radioactive calcium.

Although children were exposed to radiation, all levels of exposure were lower than the standards used the time as well as today's more stringent guidelines.

The highest exposure for any single youth involved in the experimentation was 330 millirems, less than the yearly background radiation in Denver.

"MIT's position all along has been that none of these" experiments involved a large enough dose of radiation to harm subjects, Litster said. However he regretted that proper procedures for consent were not followed, Litster said.

Institute apologizes early in case

After reading accounts of radiation experiments by MIT in The Boston Globe, President Charles M. Vest apologized for the Institute's involvement in those experiments.

Plaintiffs however still harbor resentment about what was done to them 50 years ago. "The fact of the matter is that they used these kids as guinea pigs," Mattchen said. The actions of the researchers "violates Nuremberg" and "rules of decent society," he said. "They were blatantly lied to in my opinion," Mattchen said.

"We didn't know anything at the time," said Fred Boyce, who was one of the Fernald subjects and part of the class action suit, "we just thought we were special."

He said that the fact that researchers from one of America's most prestigious institutions were taking an interest in those institutionalized in the school raised spirits of students at Fernald.

"It was like, Wow' someone was taking an interest," Boyce said, "All of a sudden we had some of the elite people."

The later realization that the experiments were done through bribery - more food and promises of trips to baseball games - caused many to become disillusioned, Boyce said.

"It's a funny type of animosity," Boyce said about his feelings toward the Institute and the researchers. "It's a disappointing type of feeling." Boyce said.

Rebuffs from the government also fueled subjects' bitterness.

In late 1995, President Clinton apologized to the subjects at Fernald after an advisory committee's ruled that the tests were "morally troubling." Although the government formally apologized no financial compensation was offered to victims.

"To me it was like saying nothing was wrong," Boyce said.

Final hearing set for spring

The settlement was approved by the USDistrict court of Massachusetts at a preliminary hearing held in late December and encompasses all claims against the Institute involving the nutrition experiments. The final hearing on the settlement is scheduled for early April.

Claimants have until January 31 to either stake a claim in the settlement or file for exclusion from the class in order file individual lawsuits.

The Institute placed advertisements in newspapers throughout the state informing the public of the settlement.