BOSTON -- Radioactive cereal fed to 15 children at a state home for the retarded during the 1940s and '50s was intended to give Quaker Oats an advantage over rival Cream of Wheat, a lawsuit contends.
The federal lawsuit against the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Quaker Oats and several doctors at the Fernald School in Waltham was filed last week on behalf of the children used as secret test subjects.
The children, according to the lawsuit, were told they were part of a science club to trick them into participating and some were exposed to more radiation than federal limits allow, though there have been no ill effects.
Michael Mattchen, the lawyer who filed the lawsuit, said much of the research done at Fernald was for the commercial benefit of Quaker Oats.
Small amounts of calcium and iron tagged with radioactive tracers were put in the boys' cereal, allowing researchers to track the absorption of those nutrients as the oatmeal was digested.
"What was the genesis of these particular experiments? It seems simply to be what are the relative benefits of oatmeal and Cream of Wheat," Mattchen said. "There was an utter failure to treat these kids with any human decency."
Some experiments were carried out during the Cold War for military or medical purposes, but Mattchen said the federal government had a relatively small role at the Fernald School.
A spokesman for Quaker Oats did not immediately return calls yesterday.
MIT made the radioactive isotopes and scientists from there and Harvard carried out the experiments, he said.
Last year, a state panel said the small amounts of radioactive calcium and iron eaten by 74 residents of the Fernald School had no discernible effect on their health.
But the panel said researchers violated the children's human rights.
President Clinton apologized last October to members of the "science club" at the Fernald School and to other subjects of radiation experiments sanctioned by the federal government during the same era.
His task force said the experiments at the Fernald School were unethical but the subjects were not hurt and so deserved no federal compensation.
The president of MIT has apologized for the way the Fernald experiments were done.
The lawsuit filed seeks $1 million for each test subject for suffering and $3 million in punitive damages "to deter defendants from ever again using human beings ... as guinea pigs for experimental procedures."