In the 1950’s, the Federal Government established a worldwide network to collect tissue secretly to monitor the effects of radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons tests, according to documents uncovered by a Presidential panel.
The President’s Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments today released documents from the old Atomic Energy Commission that outlined efforts to collect tissue, primarily bone, from cadavers without obtaining the permission of the next of kin. The documents show the commission members were aware of the dubious legal and ethical grounds for the research.
A transcript of a secret meeting on Jan. 18, 1955, called by the commission to discuss the tissue gathering for “Project Sunshine” shows that Dr. Willard Libby, a University of Chicago researcher who was a commission member, said there were “great gaps” in important data about fallout because of difficulty in obtaining human samples, particularly from children.
“I don’t know how to get them,” Dr. Libby is quoted as saying in the transcript, “but I do say that it is a matter of prime importance to get them and particularly in the young age group. So, human samples are of prime importance, and if anybody knows how to do a good job of body snatching, they will really be serving their country.”
Dr. Libby died in 1980 after winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1960 for developing the dating method using radioactive carbon-14.
The Presidential panel is gathering and studying documents relating to all Government-sponsored radiation experiments involving humans beginning in 1945. So far, panel officials say, they have uncovered evidence of hundreds of secret experiments on people.
Project Sunshine sought to measure the amount of strontium-90 being absorbed by humans because of nuclear testing. Strontium-90, a calcium-like, radioactive substance produced from nuclear explosions, is absorbed by plants and animals and is passed through food to humans, whose bones absorb it. The project was intended to use that absorption to gauge possible health problems caused by atomic tests.
Managers of the project, not wanting to disclose the nature of the research, decided to have researchers use their personal contacts to recruit others to gather samples for them. Some sample gatherers were told that the material was needed for a project to measure natural levels of the element radium found in the population, the documents disclosed.
More than 1,500 samples were gathered around the world and 500 were analyzed for a paper published in the journal Science on Feb. 8, 1957, by a team from Columbia University. That study concluded that the amount of strontium-90 found in humans worldwide did not indicate an immediate health hazard from atomic testing.