by Jim Huck

Since 1941, plutonium was classified during the construction of the atomic bomb. It was known as "product" or "49" since its number was "94" on the periodic chart. There was no public knowledge of the use of plutonium in atomic weapons until after the two bombs were dropped in August 1945. Since plutonium played such a critical role in the bomb, the study of its effects on the human body became important to the government.

The government maintained that it was essential plutonium experiments in order to determine if it affected workers who were exposed to it while working on government projects. Thus, numerous tests -- most on unknowing cancer patients -- commenced in the 1940s. In the end, the experiments were a dismal failure. Fifty years later, in 1997, the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research concluded: "Large numbers of nuclear weapons workers have received information which systematically understates their actual exposures because the dosages were not combines." Yet the DOE denied that many human subjects had high exposures to radiation.

Wright Langham was one of the first to be commissioned to head experiments in plutonium. He was named director of the Chicago Plutonium Project in 1944 and then was transferred to Los Alamos. Langham sent five micrograms of plutonium to Oak Park where the first experiment was conducted. A 53-year old human subject, Ebb Cade, was administered 4.7 micrograms of plutonium, and his blood, urine, bone, and stool samples were analyzed over the course of the next six weeks. On April 16, 1945, a 68-year man with mouth cancer was given 6.5 micrograms of uranium and thus became the second victim of the project's uranium experiment. Eight months later the third human subject was a 55 year old woman who was administered 95 micrograms to determine if its effect on her breast cancer.

Meanwhile, other studies were conducted in California where Joseph Hamilton, a 58-year old diagnosed with stomach cancer, was given a plutonium injection on May 14, 1945. Subsequently, his stomach was removed and it was determined that it was notmalignant but that he had a gastric ulcer. On March 24, 1945, a 53-year old man broke two legs and an arm in a car accident near Oak Ridge, Tennessee. While recuperating in the hospital, he became the first of 19 patients to be injected with plutonium, receiving 4.7 micrograms. Elmer Allen, a 36 railroad porter in San Francisco, was the last of the California subjects to be injected with plutonium on July 18, 1947. He was the only subject to be told anything about plutonium experiments in advance. Allen had fractured a leg and it not only did not heal but his condition worsened. He entered the San Francisco Clinic of the University of California's medical school where he was diagnosed as having bone cancer, and he was treated with doses of plutonium.

Plutonium was not the only radioactive element used on human subjects. The Boston Project in the early 1950s included the use of radioactive strontium, polonium, radium, and uranium. Between 1953 and 1957, 11 terminally ill patients at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston were injected with uranium as part of an experimental program sponsored by Oak Ridge National Laboratory. All the patients received high doses of uranium. As a result their physical conditions worsened and most of them died. The experiments were conducted by Dr. William Sweet, a neurosurgeon who had received his degree from Harvard Medical School. The objective of the program was two-fold.

First, it was an opportunity to learn about the effects of uranium on human subjects, so that information could be used in improving safety standards among workers engaged in projects involving nuclear energy. Second, the experiments were conducted to determine if uranium would localize in the brain, allowing it to be used to treat cancer. As a result, Sweet received the prestigious Harvey Cushing Medal from the American Association of Neurological Surgeons.

In April 1999, the University of Cincinnati settled a lawsuit for $5 million involving families of 90 cancer patients. While practicing medicine at the university's hospital between 1960 and 1971, Dr. Eugene Saenger conducted radiation experiments with terminally ill cancer patients.

In the 1990s, the CIA released previously classified documents relating to plutonium tests on human subjects.

--In 1947, Elmer Allen of Chicago was diagnosed with bone cancer. His left leg was injected with heavy doses of plutonium for two days. On the third day, his leg was amputated and was flown to the Atomic Energy Commission's laboratory where the effects of radiation were studied. In 1973, Allen returned to a hospital and was given a full body radiation scan. The doctors to urine and blood samples to assess the plutonium residue in his body from 26 years earlier.

--According to an investigation by the Albuquerque Tribune, 18 people, including a four year old boy, housewives, elderly retirees, and blacks, were given plutonium from 1945 to 1947 to determine how quickly it traveled through the human body. One of them was John Mousso, 46 years old at the time, who was a patient at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, New York. He was never told that he was the recipient of an experimental drug. It was plutonium 239; he received 46 times the normal radiation one would get in a lifetime.

--In the 1950s, mentally retarded students were given permission by their parents to belong to the Science Club at Fernald School in Waltham, Massachusetts. They were fed radiation with the cereal to determine identify the pathway of nutrients in the human digestive system. The tests were carried out by the Quaker Oats Cereal researchers from MIT. Quaker Oats wanted to prove that nutrients in their cereal traveled throughout the body, so they could win an advertising war against Cream of Wheat, their largest competitor. Quaker Oats hoped that traces of radiation would help them to identify the rates of absorption and elimination of the nutrients.

On December 31, 1997, Quaker Oats settled a lawsuit, and 30 of the students were awarded an overall settlement of $1.85 million. Other studies were conducted at Fernald School as well as at Wrentham School in Massachusetts. Experiments on the thyroid gland involved injections of radioactive iodine and the use of radioisotopes for the diagnosing various medical conditions as well as determining the effect of radiation from the iodine on the human body.

--In the spring of 1950, the military exploded radioactive lanthanum 140 near Los Alamos, New Mexico.

--In other radiation tests from 1945 to 1949, 829 pregnant women were fed radioactive iron drinks in order to detect their effect on fetal development. Even several of the mothers' children died as a result of the radiation.

--In an experiment at the University of Rochester, a graduate student fed children radioactive milk.

--In 1961, researchers at MIT injected 20 subjects, ranging in age from 63 to 83, with Radium-224 and Thorium-234 as part of a study on aging.

--In studies conducted in 1946 and 1947 at the University of Rochester in New York, six patients were injected with various levels of radiation to determine the effects on their kidneys. One patient was homeless and "agreed willingly to enter the metabolic unit for special studies." Three others, one of whom entered the clinic in a "hallucinatory state," were alcoholics.

--In 1957, northern Alaskan Eskimos and Athabascans, most of whom spoke no English, received an apple and an orange for allowing United States Army doctors to inject into them radioactive Iodine-131.