Charity Patients Irradiated to Gauge Effect on Soldiers : Radiation: Experiments on 82 people with cancer lasted until 1972. Sixty days after exposure, 25 had died.
Over a dozen years, ending in 1972, at least 82 charity patients at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center were exposed to powerful full- and partial-body radiation in a study designed to gauge exposure levels for soldiers, according to documents being reviewed by the Energy Department.
The experimental subjects--of whom 61 were low-income black men and women--were cancer patients whose illnesses were deemed untreatable, although all still were considered to be in “relatively good health.” Many even continued to work every day. But within 60 days after exposure to radiation 10 times higher than that believed safe at the time, 25 of the patients died.
The experiments were conducted by Eugene L. Saenger, an eminent radiological health specialist, and they prompted the University of Cincinnati’s Junior Faculty Assn. to conclude in 1972 that “many patients paid severely for their participation and often without even knowing that they were part of an experiment.”
Saenger himself, in a report to the Defense Department, acknowledged that “one can identify eight cases in which there is a possibility of the therapy contributing to mortality.”
Saenger--and others who conducted experiments now under review--continues to testify as an expert witness in suits against the U.S. Energy Department by nuclear production workers and communities seeking compensation for radiation exposure.
The Cincinnati case poses a significant dilemma for the department, which has vowed to “come clean” on such experiments. Much of the technical expertise it has used to fend off lawsuits is derived from experiments whose methods are now being called into question.
The Cincinnati experiments, which were the subject of a Senate hearing in 1972, also show that human radiation tests were conducted well beyond the 1940s and 1950s, when knowledge about nuclear radiation remained crude.
In addition, the Saenger experiments provide dramatic evidence that an interagency task force formed Monday by the Clinton Administration to review the human experimentation will have to breach a wall of secrecy at the Pentagon, as well as at organizations like the Energy Department and its predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission, which already have been implicated. The Defense Department spent $651,000 to support the Cincinnati experiments.
Energy Department officials and a burgeoning army of federal investigators are reviewing the Cincinnati experiments as they comb through thousands of pages of documents on Cold War experimentation in which humans, often without being told, were exposed to radiation. Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary has said she was “appalled, shocked and deeply saddened” to learn of an earlier experiment, in which 18 individuals were injected with plutonium, and has vowed to lead a review of such Cold War practices sponsored by the federal government.
It is not known whether any of those who were subjects in the Cincinnati experiments are still living. In 1971, when details of the experiments first emerged, six of the patients were believed to be alive. Saenger, now professor emeritus of radiology at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, did not return numerous telephone calls from The Times.
The government’s investigation of the Cincinnati experiments is expected to focus on key issues of medical ethics raised by long-secret radiation experiments involving humans: whether patients were told of their status as experimental subjects and whether they explicitly agreed to participate.
A report by the Junior Faculty Assn. noted that for the first five years of Saenger’s study--when almost 48 patients were exposed to full-body radiation--"patients seem to have been told nothing except that the radiation was part of their treatment.”
The informed consent of patients was further complicated by the fact that the affected patients had a median IQ of 87. An IQ of 100 is considered average.
A 1972 review of the experiments by the American College of Radiology, which cleared Saenger of any wrongdoing and urged continued government support for his studies, acknowledged that subjects were not asked to sign consent forms until 1965--five years into the experiment. The radiology college said that only “in the last few years (patients) were told that the information might have military as well as clinical significance.”
Commenting on the cross-section of subjects used in the experiment, the college review noted that “in both race and IQ, the group was representative of the patients served at Cincinnati General Hospital"--the public hospital from which subjects for the experiments were drawn.
But the government’s review is certain to concentrate as well on the propriety of exposing subjects--even those considered to be terminally ill--to radiation in a form and at a rate that apparently never had been tried on humans in experimental settings.
Although whole-body radiation was once seen as a potential treatment for leukemia, a textbook on the treatment of the disease that was in wide use at the time of Saenger’s experiments warned that doses of no more than 25 rads should be given “to avoid too-great bone-marrow injury or other reactions.”
Saenger wrote in a 1970 report of his work that subjects would be exposed to 250 rads in one session at intensive dose rates of between three and six rads per minute.
“During that period, it was pretty well understood by health physicists that doses at that level would give a high risk of being fatal to a patient,” Dr. Karl Z. Morgan, president emeritus of the International Radiation Protection Assn. and former president of the Health Physics Society, told The Times. “At 250 rads, a number of persons would not survive that exposure and it certainly would hurry the death of someone with leukemia or a similar malignancy.”
The dose led the Junior Faculty Assn. to suggest that bone marrow failure caused by excessive radiation exposure--and not the normal course of their diseases--may have led prematurely to the deaths of many of Saenger’s experimental subjects.
Saenger’s work, however, was considered important to the U.S. military, and Saenger frequently cast it as crucial to the study of nuclear defenses. In 1963, Saenger reported to the Pentagon that “combat effectiveness would be relatively maintained at an exposure up to 200 rads"--a dose in some cases lower than he was administering to ill patients. But he warned that “a second exposure would result in significant troop ineffectiveness.”
Attorneys active in pursuing radiation compensation cases said experts such as Saenger frequently serve as key government witnesses in cases brought against the Energy Department.
Saenger is listed as a prospective government witness in six lawsuits being brought on behalf of 216 contract employees who worked on the construction of nuclear test sites during the 1950s and ‘60s. Attorneys said the government’s treatment of the cases will be the first test of the Energy Department’s commitment to the new standards it has espoused.
“I find it a little hard to believe that Dr. Saenger could be that concerned about radiation effects when he could conduct experiments like these on humans,” said Larry Johns, a Las Vegas attorney handling some of the pending suits. “It raises a question as to his objectivity. You have to wonder . . . how reliable, how credible are the experts the government brings in to testify in cases of this type?” Johns said.
Johns said that two other scientists whose work is now under review by the Energy Department are also on a list of prospective witnesses the government has furnished him.
“For the Energy Department to be able to use any testimony generated by what might be considered illicit experiments is insidious in its nature,” said Stanley Chesley, a Cincinnati attorney active in pursuing nuclear radiation cases. “To use any of these experts to defend any of these cases is very disconcerting.” Chesley declined to comment on the Saenger experiments.