The Manhattan Project and Plutonium Health Hazards Discovered in 1941 by Glenn Seaborg and others at Berkeley, plutonium supported nuclear fission, a process that split atoms and released tremendous energy. Plutonium became an urgently needed material for one variety of atomic bomb; uranium-235, the fissionable isotope of natural uranium, was used in the other bomb type.
The first appreciable quantities of plutonium became available by January 1944. At that time, Seaborg warned of its potential health hazards and suggested immediate studies to learn its biological behavior. This was a critical issue: the longer the material stayed in the body, the more damage it could do. Hundreds of workers would soon be exposed to plutonium, and exposure standards were necessary. Overexposure would not only hurt workers; it could compromise secrecy and disrupt production schedules.
About 10 percent of the plutonium supply was allocated for animal studies in January 1944. By the summer of that year, those studies provided enough information about plutonium retention to justify removal of several Los Alamos workers with high previous exposures from further work with the material. Los Alamos had already had several accidental human exposures to plutonium, and the imminent prospect of working with far larger quantities increased the desire for even more metabolic information.
The early animal studies showed that different species excreted known amounts of plutonium at different rates. This meant that there was no accurate way to correlate animal excretion data to humans. As a result, sentiment grew among project medical staff to administer known amounts of plutonium to humans to derive precise excretion data. However, it was not until the winter of 1944 that Los Alamos Health Group personnel developed methods to detect tracer-level concentrations of plutonium in excreta. In February 1945, this group, headed by Louis Hempelmann and supervised by Wright Langham, used the procedure to monitor workers for accidental plutonium uptake.
With a proven method to detect small amounts of plutonium in excreta, Los Alamos personnel met on March 23, 1945, with Robert Oppenheimer and Colonel Hymer Friedell of the Manhattan Engineer District (MED) to discuss “the medical problems of this project and their relationship to the Medical Research Program of the Manhattan District.” In a memorandum written three days after the meeting, Louis Hempelmann stated that the Manhattan Project was asked to consider “that a hospital patient at either Rochester or Chicago be chosen for injection from 1 to 10 micrograms of material [plutonium] and that the excreta be sent to this laboratory for analysis.” The Manhattan District was also asked to help make arrangements for this “human tracer experiment.” Such arrangements were made, and an MED medical officer administered the first human plutonium injection on April 10, 1945, at the Oak Ridge Hospital.
The Experiments, Part 1
How all the injections were coordinated or even if they were coordinated is unclear. Following the Oak Ridge test, injections were given at the Billings Hospital at the University of Chicago on April 26, 1945, and at the University of California Hospital in San Francisco on May 14, 1945. By late June, Manhattan Project contractors at the University of Rochester’s Strong Memorial Hospital developed a detailed plan for “rapid (1 year) Completion of Human Tracer Studies.” These studies were to include plutonium, uranium, polonium, and radioactive lead.
Over the next several months this plan was revised, and on September 18, 1945, Wright Langham sent the most recent version to Colonel Stafford Warren, Chief of the Manhattan District Medical Section, noting that “you and Col. Friedell, will of course, have final say as to whether or not the experiment goes through in accordance with this plan.” The Rochester plutonium experiment protocol called for 10 subjects to be admitted to the Strong Memorial Hospital metabolism ward in groups of four per month for the first two months and two for the third month.
After injection, samples of blood, urine, and feces were to be shipped to Langham at Los Alamos for analysis. Documents show that, from October 1945 to July 1946, Rochester injected 11 patients. One of the later patients (designated as HP 11) died of pneumonia and other preexisting ailments 6 days after his February 20 injection. Samuel Bassett at Rochester described this as an “acute experiment” that did not involve collection of excreta, but that did yield organs and other autopsy material that was sent to Los Alamos for study.
When notified of HP 11, Langham told Bassett, “If you should decide to do another terminal case, I suggest you use 50 micrograms [of plutonium] instead of 5. This would permit the analysis of much smaller samples and make my work considerably easier.” Langham also stated, “I have just received word that Chicago is performing two terminal experiments using 95 micrograms each. I feel reasonably certain there would be no harm in using larger amounts of material if you are sure the case is a terminal one.”
The two Chicago experiments took place at Billings Hospital on December 27, 1945. Both subjects died of ‘preexisting ailments’ shortly after injections of 94.91 micrograms of plutonium.
Experimental protocols exist for the Rochester studies. Langham and others who directed the research also described in broad terms how subjects were to be selected. Generally, the choice fell on older individuals (13 of whom were 45 or older) with limited life expectancy. (Ten of the 16 who were tracked died within 10 years.) Four subjects did, however, live more than 20 years after the experiments.
Although several research reports by others appeared earlier, Langham and several colleagues at Los Alamos compiled the most substantial account of the plutonium injection experiments. They based their conclusions chiefly on the Rochester study. Issued as Los Alamos report LA 1151 in September 1950, Distribution and Excretion of Plutonium Administered Intravenously to Man described the experiments, tabulated the data on plutonium metabolism, and derived an empirical formula for calculating retained plutonium from urinalysis. Although LA 1151 itself remained restricted until 1980, information about the plutonium studies made its way into the scientific literature shortly after the injections took place.
The Experiments, Part 2
During the early 1970s, Patricia W. Durbin, a biophysicist at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, reevaluated Langham’s plutonium excretion data. One reason Durbin could improve on Langham’s results was the unexpected availability of data from long-term survivors. During her research, she learned that one subject had lived for 20 years after being injected. Painstaking detective work revealed that four other subjects were also still alive in the early 1970s. With the AEC’s approval, support from the Center for Human Radiobiology at Argonne National Laboratory, and cooperation from the University of Rochester’s Strong Memorial Hospital, three of the four survivors were reexamined in 1973.
Researchers gathered and promptly published new data on long-term patterns of plutonium retention and excretion. Efforts to find and study these surviving subjects ultimately triggered controversy. In the time since the work had been done, the Government had adopted requirements mandating that subjects give informed consent as a condition of research. Questions arose whether the plutonium subjects provided consent for the original experiments or for the 1973 follow-up examinations. The ensuing investigation resulted in two internal AEC reports issued in August 1974. Both concluded that only one subject may have provided any kind of consent. The other 17 participated with little verifiable knowledge of the experiment or its risks. Moreover, the reports found that the 1973 follow-up studies were
also not done with informed consent from the subjects. The three subjects were not told they had been injected with plutonium for experimental purposes, nor why they had been asked to return to the hospital.
Although the AEC did not publicly release these reports, the agency’s successor, the Energy Research and Development Administration, issued a fact sheet on the matter in 1976. This issuance provided details on the experiments and briefly discussed results from the 1974 AEC inquiry on informed consent.
The Plutonium Experiments and the Public
Publications based on the plutonium studies began to appear in the medical literature as early as 1948. In several articles during the 1950s and early 1960s, Langham explained the technique for measuring excreted plutonium and referred to the validating research on plutonium metabolism in humans. Some information, however, remained classified for a number of years afterward.
The public first learned about experiments in 1976, after ERDA issued the fact sheet noted above. Several newspapers carried stories emphasizing the absence of informed consent and raising questions about medical ethics, but the issue seemed to arouse little public concern. Ten years later, a congressional committee issued a report that criticized the plutonium injections and about 30 other Federal human radiation experiments. Commonly known as the Markey report after subcommittee chairman Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), this document again stimulated only limited media attention at the time.
What the scientific literature and other information about the experiments did not provide was the names of the subjects or their personal stories. This approach was pursued by Eileen Welsome of the Albuquerque Tribune, who in November 1993, published a series on the experiments and its subjects. The author had hunted through government reports, scientific journals, and newspaper files to piece together facts about the experiments, including the names and other personal details of several subjects.
At a December 1993 press conference, Secretary of Energy Hazel R. O’Leary discussed the plutonium experiments in conjunction with releasing much formerly classified information on a variety of subjects. As part of a new policy of openness, she also committed the Department to revealing the full scope and details of human radiation experiments done by the agency and its predecessors. The story of the experiments received extensive national attention and led to public demands that the Federal government make full disclosure on the topics.
One year after the Secretary’s commitment, the Department has found, declassified, and made available much documentation relating to the plutonium injections and other human radiation experiments. Now under investigation by the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments and others, this information will provide the basis for a comprehensive ethical analysis of these studies.
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