COLUMN ONE : Fallout From Toxic Beagle Experiments : Davis residents feel betrayed by how nuclear tests occurred at kennels. Radiation has leaked into the air and ground.
The radioactive beagles are long gone, their frozen carcasses hauled off to a nuclear waste dump in Washington state along with 140 tons of radioactive dog sewage.
Their legacy, however, has jolted residents of this environmentally conscious college town, which declared itself a “nuclear free zone” a decade ago. After all, this is a community where the bicycle is king, recycling is a popular pastime and smoking is banned even on downtown sidewalks.
But on the edge of the UC Davis campus, about two miles outside the city, sits a contaminated ghost town of empty kennels, deserted research laboratories and aging landfills surrounded by barbed-wire.
The secluded Department of Energy facility--where UC scientists fed beagles radioactive chow in a 30-year study of nuclear fallout--is so toxic that it is proposed for listing as a federal Superfund site.
Revelations over the past five years that the facility has emitted radiation and contaminated ground water have left some neighbors feeling betrayed by the university and the government.
“A lot of people gave the university the benefit of the doubt, as I did in the beginning,” said Julie Roth, a neighbor whose well is fouled by radioactive tritium and toxic chemicals. “I believed they, more than anyone else, would know the dangers and (take) the most steps to protect people.
“In fact, I found out it was just the opposite.”
From 1956 until 1986, when the last of 1,200 beagles died, researchers at UC Davis were part of what they called the Beagle Club, a set of experiments in six states to study the effects of nuclear contamination. At the Davis Laboratory for Energy-Related Health Research, scientists fed some beagles strontium 90, injected some with radium, and irradiated others with cobalt to see how nuclear fallout might affect people.
Now, some neighbors and former workers at the site say they were alarmed to learn they may have been unknowingly exposed to radiation from a cobalt irradiator used on the beagles outdoors for 15 years without public warning. One former university student who worked with the dogs has filed a lawsuit, charging she developed cancer from the radiation.
Furthermore, radioactive and chemical wastes from the facility have poisoned wells on neighboring farms, prompting the university to provide bottled water to nearby homes. Some farm owners say they may sue over lost property values.
“We never had any idea we had the potential of being exposed,” said Roth, who has lived on her farm for more than a decade.
The beagle research center is one of 4,000 Department of Energy sites contaminated by radiation or chemical waste during the Cold War rush to produce nuclear weapons and study the effects of radiation.
The department, which recently admitted conducting radiation experiments on humans without their knowledge, estimates that it will cost as much as $200 billion over 30 years to clean up the toxic mess caused by half a century of nuclear development.
The Beagle Club experiments began at a time of “Cold War hysteria,” when fears of a nuclear war were widespread and some nations, including the United States and the Soviet Union, were testing atomic bombs above ground, explained Marvin Goldman, who headed the Davis research for 20 years.
The scientists experimented on beagles because they are long-lived, have greater genetic diversity than other dog species and their skeleton and bone marrow resemble that of humans.
The research was sponsored by the Atomic Energy Commission, a forerunner of the Department of Energy, which contracted with UC Davis and other institutions to conduct specific studies.
At Colorado State University, researchers looked at the effect of radiating beagles inside the womb. In Albuquerque, scientists studied beagles that inhaled radioactive material. Researchers at Hanford in Washington and the University of Utah Medical School examined the effects of plutonium on beagles. And scientists at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago studied external radiation and long-term genetic damage.
At UC Davis, the scientists’ primary mission was to determine the danger of strontium 90, a bone-seeking isotope that is present in nuclear fallout. Long-lasting and deadly, strontium is absorbed by crops, eaten by cattle and passed on to people through cow’s milk. Even today, the atmosphere contains strontium from atomic tests during the 1950s.
From before birth to the time they reached adulthood, 300 beagles at UC Davis were fed a daily diet that included strontium 90.
“This was to simulate a contaminated world,” said Goldman, a research radiobiologist. “This was to simulate people living downstream from a leaky nuclear facility.”
To make a valid comparison with humans, other beagles were injected with radium to replicate the exposure early this century of women who developed bone cancer from painting radium dials on watches. A third group of beagles was not exposed to radiation.
Another experiment tested the dogs’ response to full-body radiation. At first, these beagles were given cesium, a radioactive particle; later they were exposed to radiation from the cobalt irradiator.
Goldman said the UC Davis research led to important discoveries that helped shape medical policy for the nuclear era and set international radiation safety standards.
The Davis researchers found that high levels of strontium 90 caused bone cancer and that higher levels caused leukemia. At the same time, they found at lower levels--up to 1,000 times background exposure--there were no health effects. From this they concluded that strontium emitted by nuclear plants is well below the level that would be considered unsafe.
Goldman insisted that the beagles were treated well, got excellent medical care and lived “three times longer” than beagles kept as household pets. The dogs were kept two to a pen, separated by gender, and lived celibate lives.
Detailed records were kept on each dog. When they died, their bodies were kept in huge freezers so scientists could go back and analyze tissue samples. Even today, the experiments are providing raw data for scientists who are studying radiation exposure.
Although the radiation research at the lab was not a secret, nearby residents say they were never told of any hazards and only learned about possible dangers after the cleanup started in 1989 and they began asking questions.
Neighbors were especially startled to learn about the cobalt irradiator, which was heavily used until the mid-1980s.
UC Davis and the Department of Energy sought to assure residents that they were not harmed, but then found that researchers had kept virtually no records on the amount of radiation emitted.
“What was surprising to me was an absolute lack of any scientific information they kept on the potential exposure,” said Julie Roth, whose farmhouse is a quarter-mile from the facility.
Embarrassed, the government commissioned a study to estimate the exposure levels during the 15 years the irradiator was used. The report concluded that the device did not pose a hazard, although skeptical neighbors remain unconvinced.
As a UC Davis student in 1972 and 1973, Rheem Araj worked at the research center helping to take care of the beagles. According to her lawyers, she was never told of radiation on the site or issued a radiation monitoring badge.
In 1984, she contracted lymphoma, which is now in remission. She did not connect her cancer to the beagle research until after 1990, when word of radiation exposure at the site began to surface. Now she is suing the university, contending that exposure caused her illness. The university denies any connection between her illness and the beagle project.
“She did not know that the beagles were irradiated or that she was being irradiated,” said her attorney, Scott Wechsler.
Department of Energy officials acknowledge that in the climate of Cold War secrecy, the public was not warned of potential radiation dangers from facilities such as the Davis center. Now they say they are trying to correct their mistakes, in part by talking openly about radiation exposure from nuclear facilities and experiments on unwitting humans.
“We freely admit that people were not given adequate notice of activities at our sites,” said Roger Liddle, the Department of Energy project manager for the Davis cleanup.
Knowing the experiments would produce radioactive waste, the Davis researchers built a special septic system to treat and contain contaminated sewage. Goldman said the system was innovative for its day--a time when many scientists routinely disposed of hazardous radioactive and chemical waste in unlined pits.
One former worker at the site has alleged at public meetings that overflow radioactive sewage was sometimes channeled into nearby Putah Creek, which empties into Lake Berryessa. UC Davis officials deny there was improper disposal.
Cleanup of the facilityis complicated by earlier toxic dumping on the property. Before the dog experiments began in 1956, the 15-acre site was where UC Davis scientists buried radioactive cow and calf carcasses in unlined landfills and trenches, along with other hazardous laboratory waste.
Tests of the ground water have found unsafe levels of tritium--a radioactive tracer used in the cow studies--as well as chromium, nitrates and other hazardous chemicals.
In addition, radioactive strontium and radium used in the beagle experiments are in the soil, the laboratories and the kennels.
At this point, UC Davis and federal officials say there is no threat to human health from the research facility.
“No one is drinking water contaminated with radiation,” said Greg Baker, an official with the Environmental Protection Agency. But because of concern about the potential exposure to people in the area, the EPA announced last month that it will step in.
After completion of a detailed assessment to determine the extent of the problem, federal officials expect the site to be placed on the EPA’s Superfund list, making it one of the top national priorities for toxic cleanup.
Earlier, the frozen beagles were packed in 55-gallon drums and shipped to Hanford, followed by the radioactive sewage, which was mixed with concrete to form solid blocks. The controversial cobalt irradiator was sent to a private research center. And workers recently finished stripping the laboratories.
While taking steps to clean up the site, UC Davis officials defend their researchers. They also point out that the radiation experiments were public knowledge and that the center even gave public tours.
“As far as we know, the facility operated according to the health and safety regulations in effect at the time,” said university spokeswoman Karen Watson. “Of course, the standard practice then is not the standard practice now.”
But in Davis, where the university dominates the community’s economy and social life, revelations about the handling of radiation at the research center have caused some to question the university’s credibility.
Among them is resident Larry Bidinian, who successfully sued in 1992 to block UC Davis from developing the site without preparing an environmental impact report on its hazards.
“I don’t think anybody knows the full extent of the problem because everybody did their best to cover it up and then downplay it,” he said.