The U.S. government subjected more than 100 Alaskan villagers to radioactive drugs in the 1950s as part of a medical experiment to find out whether soldiers could better survive in Arctic conditions, Cable News Network reported Monday.
The CNN special report said doctors hired by the U.S. military gave pills containing small doses of iodine to 102 Eskimos and Indians to measure its effect on their thyroid glands. The report said the doctors did not explain to the Alaskans what they were doing.
However, Kaare Rodahl, the Norwegian doctor who led the research, says the project was safe and was not part of a military experiment. He said the pills were given to the Eskimos to combat endemic goiter, a potentially fatal iodine deficiency.
"I wouldn't call it radiation," Dr. Rodahl told CNN in a telephone interview from Norway. "This was a small amount. They were probably exposed to much more radiation from the Russian bombs," he said, referring to atomic bomb testing by the Soviet Union.
"This was between 1950 and 1957 when the Cold War was at its coldest," Rodahl said. "We felt that if we could make a study of the Eskimos to find out how they got along we could perhaps learn from them and do the same as they do."
CNN said the tests showed that Alaskans had no genetic advantage in coping with the cold. But no one knows whether people suffered medical ailments from the testing because the military did not follow up with another visit.
Rodahl said in an interview with ABC News that the villagers were given the pills for medical reasons.
"We gave these pills which they swallowed, the iodine-131 was absorbed into the blood and picked up by the thyroid gland and the more the thyroid gland took up of this, the more likely they were that they had endemic goiter," he said.
Some of the people from six native villages in Alaska who were part of the tests told CNN they thought the military had been studying Alaskan diets.
"I don't remember them telling me anything about what they were doing," villager Bob Ahgook said. "Maybe if I'd known I would have refused to take it."
Sen. Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska) said he wants the government to investigate. "The implication of people being used as human guinea pigs is something we simply have got to find the answer to," he told CNN.